From the moment that Newt Gingrich arrived in the House of Representatives in 1979, he was overflowing with ideas. Pudgy, prolix, and prematurely gray, Gingrich tossed off policy proposals (government bonuses for poor children who learn to read, tax credits to help lower-income families buy computers); management theories (“There is a model I work off,” he told one interviewer: “visions, strategies, projects, and tactics”); legislative strategies (“It is my tactic to confront them so hard they have to respond”); and projections of the future (“My interest is in creating a positive, dynamic, high-tech, self-governing, free-market future”) in a torrent of words that suggested either a touch of genius or Tourette’s syndrome. He sometimes resembled a human PowerPoint presentation. Gingrich’s whirling activity and tireless proselytizing touched on almost every conceivable subject of policy and political debate. But at its root was a simple injunction: Republicans must sharpen their differences with Democrats in every possible way and create clear, bright lines of division between the parties. “I’m tough in the House because when I arrived the Republican Party was a soft institution that lacked the tradition of fighting,” Gingrich said years after his arrival. “You had to have somebody who was willing to fight.”
With that militant vision, Gingrich began an insurrection against the viewpoint that had dominated the House GOP since the 1950s. An Army brat and a former history professor at West Georgia College, Gingrich came to in Washington as the sole Republican in Georgia’s congressional delegation. He was inspired by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but from the outset he was never an ideological purist. His conservatism was leavened by a generous (and often prescient) futurism that led him to worry about such things as how technology might empower the disabled for more productive lives. What truly set him apart was his capacity to formulate a long-term plan for redefining both parties, and his willingness to pursue almost any means necessary to advance it. Even as a junior member, his ambition was boundless. “I want to shift the entire planet,” he told The Washington Post in 1985.
There’s a back-to-the-future air about Gingrich’s reemergence as a top-tier Republican presidential contender nearly 14 years after he resigned from the House (amid a backlash within his own caucus after the GOP’s losses in the 1998 midterm election). As a presidential candidate, Gingrich doesn’t look much like the scattershot, deal-making speaker who, as Rick Santorum likes to remind audiences, faced a rebellion in his ranks just three years after leading them to their first House majority in four decades. Instead, the Gingrich visible to audiences today is more reminiscent of the guerrilla leader who plotted the GOP’s long march back to power. He is running as Mao the revolutionary in the caves, not Mao the helmsman in Beijing.
As a junior member in what seemed a permanent minority, Gingrich found that often he could be heard only by framing the conservative case against Democrats in language that shattered the era’s boundaries of politically acceptable speech. The instincts that Gingrich honed, and the strategies he applied, while shouting from the backbenches 30 years ago are at the center of his success today. “I used to call him the great framer: He could frame an issue more effectively than anybody I know,” said Republican former Rep. Vin Weber, a close Gingrich ally in those years who is supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. “He did it for the House Republicans for 14 years. I can see in this race [that] he doesn’t always get it right the first time, but he gets there in framing the issue: the Massachusetts moderate versus the Reagan conservative, a manager versus someone who can change the government. That’s what Romney has to worry about.”
In this contest, Gingrich has built his campaign largely around his commanding performance in Republican presidential debates. Partly, GOP voters have responded to his fluent in a wide array of issues. But mostly, many observers agree, he has thrilled the party’s most ideological elements with his lacerating attacks against President Obama, Democrats, and the news media.
“Gingrich certainly is effective in capturing a tone and tenor that really resonates with a great deal of Republicans out there, and Mitt Romney just has a harder time doing it,” said Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for John McCain in 2008.
“Tip made a critical error when he took on Newt, because he elevated Newt.”—Former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif.
A Gingrich jeremiad launches words like projectiles in rapid fire; he is to the usual style of political invective what an AK-47 is to a Colt 45. In his election-night victory speech in South Carolina alone, Gingrich denounced Obama as “the most effective food-stamp president in American history” and “a danger to this country” who subscribes to “the radicalism of Saul Alinsky” and wants to transform America into “a brand-new secular Europe-style bureaucratic socialist system”; described federal judges as “antireligious bigots”; and insisted that “elites … have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being Americans and to become some kind of other system.”
As Romney and Santorum both point out, Gingrich’s ideological compass has not always pointed due right. But his partisan direction has been steadfast. Since he arrived in Washington, he has functioned as an unwavering Republican warrior against Democrats. For many of the voters drawn to Gingrich, his appeal is the promise that he will deliver the GOP case in precisely the unflinching language that many on the right yearn to hear—that he will channel their deepest beliefs without equivocation or dilution. (It is exactly that tendency that causes many senior GOP strategists to fear that Gingrich would repel less-ideological swing voters should he win the nomination.)
With confrontation at its core, Gingrich’s presidential campaign is a return to the playbook he followed during his rise to power in Washington, when he perpetually collided with Democrats and other Republicans in his insistence that the way to reclaim power was always and unreservedly to fight. At 68, Gingrich is offering the GOP the same martial path to revival that he did during the insurgent years in the House that shaped his approach to politics. “He faces an incredibly frustrated and angry conservative base who wants to frame the issues in stark, polarizing, emotive terms,” Weber said. “That’s what he is good at. It’s a very serious question about whether that’s how a Republican will win this election against President Obama. But that’s what a lot of Republicans think they want.”
At the time of Gingrich’s arrival, the House GOP leadership resembled a sleepy family-owned company ripe for a takeover. Under the leadership of John J. Rhodes in the 1970s, and then Bob Michel after 1981, Republicans in the House had generally minimized their confrontations with Democrats. Instead they worked quietly to maximize their influence on the legislation that Democrats advanced. Michel—a quintessentially self-effacing, mid-century mid-American who had first been elected from his Peoria, Ill., seat in 1956—believed that collaboration was a more effective political strategy than confrontation because it allowed the minority Republicans to share the credit for Congress’s accomplishments. He was leery of ideas that veered too sharply from the accepted political mainstream. Ed Feulner, the longtime president of the Heritage Foundation, recalls being invited to a breakfast with Michel and senior Republican committee members during the Reagan years. Michel wanted to know what Heritage was working on, and Feulner ran through the list: tax reform, other domestic issues, Social Security. As soon as those words left Feulner’s mouth, Michel reached over and squeezed him on the arm. “Ed,” Michel said gravely, “we don’t talk about changing Social Security in this building.”
Michel’s approach brought tangible benefits to Republicans—an appropriation for a district here, a small change in legislative language to benefit a local interest there. But Gingrich and the allies who gathered around him considered the Michel system a formula for permanent subjugation. To Gingrich, Republicans were trading ease and intermittent influence for real power. Democrats might provide small favors to Republicans, but the majority still controlled all the big policy decisions. Gingrich thought the GOP leadership accepted that deal because it did not really believe it could overthrow the Democrats. “If you think you are the subordinate wolf, you spent a lot of time cultivating the dominant wolf,” Gingrich said. “If you think you are capable of becoming the dominant wolf, you spend a lot of your energy beating the dominant wolf.”
After the invigorating breakthroughs of Reagan’s first six months in the White House, Gingrich and his allies grew more frustrated as the Republican revolution flagged through the rest of 1981 and ’82. When Reagan agreed to raise taxes in 1982, the younger Republican members from the classes of 1978 and ’80 voted in large numbers against the deal. After Democrats trounced the GOP in the 1982 midterm election, a discouraged Gingrich traveled to New York to seek advice from former President Nixon. Nixon told him that Congress was too large for any single individual to change; if Gingrich wanted to make a difference, he would need reinforcements. A few months later, with a small group that included Weber of Minnesota, Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, three other shrewd Republican backbenchers, Gingrich founded the Conservative Opportunity Society.
Gingrich became the personification of the COS, but it functioned as a collaborative effort. Weber, Walker, Gregg, and Connie Mack of Florida all played large roles. The change it represented was not personal but generational. Michel, in every respect, was a creature of the post-World War II age of bargaining. The young conservatives who formed the Conservative Opportunity Society plugged into the new currents that were transforming that system. Far more than most of their colleagues, the activists recognized that in the changing media environment, congressional Republicans could define themselves more through the messages they broadcast on television than the commas they inserted into complex pieces of legislation. The group’s goal, Gingrich recalled, was to fill “a vacuum in terms of creating a confrontational activism that was media-oriented.”
Gingrich never wavered in his Vietnam-like conviction that saving the House required him first to destroy its credibility with the public.
The COS activists also quickly built alliances with many of the new conservative institutions that emerged in the 1970s; Gingrich visited the fledgling Heritage Foundation’s modest C Street office for a briefing over brown-bag lunches even before his election. He considered the arrival of the groups “enormously important. It was important because you needed the intellectual resources, it was important because you needed the noise, it was important because you needed the training for younger activists who could become candidates.” He encouraged Paul Weyrich, the visionary who helped found the Heritage Foundation, to inaugurate a weekly Wednesday lunch with conservative groups that Gingrich envisioned as the outside equivalent to the inside maneuvering of the COS.
And then Gingrich looked for issues that would allow him to activate the emerging grassroots networks. One of the first opportunities came with the National Federation of Independent Business, the passionately antigovernment small-business lobby. “We had some fight under way, and I called the head of the NFIB,” Gingrich recalled. “I said, ‘I want to start this fight.’ This was 1979. He said, ‘It’s our issue; we’re totally with you.’ I said, ‘What can you do for me within 48 hours?’ He said, ‘I can send out 44,000 thousand telegrams’—they weren’t e-mails back then—‘to my most active members.’ Well, it had never occurred to John Rhodes [that] if he thought of the network he could energize, rather than thinking about the resources that he owned, the world was enormous.… I would look for networks that had a parallel interest to us.”
The Conservative Opportunity Society sought to reshape the political landscape through two strategies. Gingrich and his allies promoted an ambitious agenda that embraced the cutting-edge conservative thinking, which the GOP leadership had kept at a distance. In its early manifestos, the COS championed a marriage of economic (balanced budget, line-item veto), social (welfare reform, school prayer), and foreign-policy (missile defense) priorities that proposed to push beyond Reagan on almost every front. They spent hours debating principles, proposals, and priorities. Their ideas presented the terms for a much more ideologically polarized contrast with the majority Democrats.
But the group quickly learned that the policy wish lists of junior members in the House’s minority party attracted little attention. Instead, the COS made its mark primarily through its other central focus: attacks on Democrats. The megaphone that would make them heard from the backbenches was C-SPAN, the cable service that began televising House proceedings in 1979. Acting on Walker’s suggestion, the COS members regularly gathered on the House floor to flay Democrats during late-night speeches that found a small but enthusiastic audience through C-SPAN. (Among the regular viewers was a young radio talk-show host named Rush Limbaugh.) From the start, the group’s hallmark was the use of flamboyant, inflammatory rhetoric. Gingrich used adjectives like rocks. He described the House as a “sick institution” and “Tammany Hall on Capitol Hill.” (Gingrich’s election-night victory speech in South Carolina last Saturday, with its armada of derogatory adjectives, would have fit easily into any COS greatest-hits package.)
In COS circles, Gingrich’s rhetoric already stood out, Weber recalled. “A lot of us were uncomfortable with Newt’s language even back then,” he said. But Gingrich’s ferocity was carefully calculated (if not always carefully calibrated). “He used [vitriolic language] strategically and tactically,” Weber said. “Newt never blurted anything out; it was always carefully thought out, carefully weighed, and as he got more advanced in leadership it was always focus-group tested.”
Gingrich scored his greatest early coup in 1984, when he used one of his evening speeches to charge that Democrats opposing aid to the Nicaraguan Contras had been “blind to communism.” Gingrich’s attack provoked Speaker Tip O’Neill to lash back at him on the House floor; O’Neill’s words violated House rules against personal attacks. When the parliamentarian formally rebuked O’Neill for his remarks, House Republicans, celebrating a singular moment of triumph after nearly three decades of uninterrupted Democratic control, rose to applaud Gingrich. “Tip made a critical error when he took on Newt, because he elevated Newt,” said Tony Coelho, the tough and savvy Democrat who arrived on Capitol Hill as an aide in 1965 and then was elected as a representative from California in 1978. “The rest of the Republican caucus loved it, because they finally got under his skin, and that’s what they were trying to do.”
Gingrich and his allies hurt Democrats the most through a sustained campaign to portray the House as endemically corrupt. Gingrich sought to expel a Democrat who had been convicted of diverting office funds into his pocket and urged the censure (rather than the milder reprimand) of a Democrat and a Republican who admitted to having sexual relationships with congressional pages. He hit the jackpot when he promoted ethical allegations against Jim Wright, O’Neill’s successor as House speaker, centered on Wright’s lucrative contract for a privately published book. Michel kept his distance, but Gingrich pressed on, eventually filing a formal complaint with the House Ethics Committee. A long, tangled confrontation led to Wright’s resignation in 1989, after an angry final blast at “mindless cannibalism” consuming the Capitol. (Ironically, Gingrich used similar language more than a decade later to describe the young House conservatives who helped remove him as speaker after the GOP’s unexpected losses in 1998.) A separate ethics dispute forced Coelho, who had ascended to the No. 3 position in the Democratic leadership, majority whip, to step down around the same time, too. Even those twin departures didn’t stop the crusade. Gingrich encouraged younger Republicans, who hammered away at irregularities in the operations of the House Post Office and House bank. “We’d sit down and chat, and I’d say, you know, ‘Be bold. Have courage. When in doubt, take risk,’ ” Gingrich recalled in an interview a few years later. (It was this long record that Gingrich understandably had in mind during a recent South Carolina debate when he derided Rick Santorum’s suggestion that he had been timid on ethics issues in Congress.)
All of these offensives threatened Republicans as well as Democrats and created an atmosphere of tension so thick that the fights among members sometimes extended beyond words to fists. But Gingrich never wavered in his Vietnam-like conviction that saving the House required him first to destroy its credibility with the public. Soon after Gingrich’s long campaign resulted in his election as speaker in 1995, he was asked in one interview how much damage he had been willing to inflict on the House to pry it from Democratic control:
“You had to bring it down … to start over?”
“Yes, I always thought that.”
A REVOLT IS BORN
Gingrich and his allies focused most of their firepower on Democrats, but they also targeted Republicans who resisted their vision of a party committed to contrast and conflict. After Sen. Bob Dole drove through the 1982 tax increase, Gingrich famously derided him as the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Even Reagan wasn’t immune. Whenever the president compromised with Democrats or sounded unifying themes, Gingrich and his allies complained. “It totally blurred all the issues between the parties,” Gingrich grumbled after Reagan signed the Dole-designed bill raising taxes. “We want to delineate for the country what the real choices are.” In 1984, Gingrich condemned Reagan’s gauzy “Morning Again in America” campaign message: “Reagan should have prepared for [a second term] … by forcing a polarization of the country,” Gingrich told a seminar at the Heritage Foundation. “He should have been running against liberals and radicals.” The next year, House conservatives joined in an insurrection that led Reagan to renounce a bipartisan agreement that Dole had assembled in the Senate to reduce the budget deficit through difficult budget cuts, including reductions in Social Security benefits.
Most House Republicans initially kept their distance from Gingrich’s uncompromising approach. Though Michel tried to avoid open warfare, his unease with Gingrich’s strategy often slipped out. (When many House Republicans applauded Gingrich after his confrontation with O’Neill, Michel walked out of the chamber without clapping.) “While Michel wanted to be speaker,” Coelho said, “he didn’t want to hurt the establishment. And Newt understood [that] the only way to get there was to go after the establishment.”
Through the Reagan years, the balance inside the GOP Conference tipped toward Gingrich. Democrats, ironically, deserved much of the credit for his success. The changes in House rules that Democrats had engineered in the 1970s eroded the rationale for Michel’s cooperative strategy. The greatest opportunity for House Republicans to influence legislation had come in the committees, where senior members could build close relationships with their Democratic counterparts. But when Democratic reformers in the 1970s ended the use of seniority to pick committee chairs, those opportunities for quiet accommodation diminished because the Democratic chairmen felt more pressure to follow the wishes of their overall caucus. Under the new rules, not only junior but also senior Republicans accustomed to a measure of influence found themselves excluded.
The liberal reformers’ fundamental goal in changing the House rules had been to provide the majority in the Democratic Caucus more leverage to impose its will without resistance from either conservative Democrats or frustrated Republicans. But each step that Democrats took toward fulfilling that vision rallied more Republicans to Gingrich’s banner. Even many Republicans who preferred to work with Democrats concluded that they could be heard only by confronting them. In the House, a more militant and unified Republican Party was the inevitable, if often unanticipated, consequence of a more unified Democratic Party.
The cycle of action and reaction, like a gang war, spiraled toward ever higher levels of conflict. Rank-and-file Democrats pressured their leaders for a tougher response to Gingrich’s escalating challenge. “Our caucus started to get more and more aggressive against our leadership, because our leadership was collegial and [was] permitting Newt and crowd to kick the shit out of us,” Coelho said. “And when [we] started pushing back … the caucus wanted to keep pushing.”
A critical moment came in 1985, when Democrats overrode Republican objections to award an Indiana seat to Democrat Frank McCloskey after a close and disputed race; the decision so infuriated House Republicans that they marched out of the chamber in protest. (That night, Gingrich said, there was a surge “in the number of members … who were Gingrichites.”) The confrontations grew even angrier after the brusque Wright succeeded O’Neill in 1987. Wright shared none of Gingrich’s ideology but matched his any-means-necessary ethos. Wright’s goal, in fact, was the same as Gingrich’s: to advance an agenda that sharpened the differences between the parties. Far more than O’Neill, Wright used the leverage granted him by the previous decade’s rules changes to tighten the screws on Republicans and dissenting Democrats. Wright threatened Democrats who resisted his proposals with loss of their chairmanships or seats on the prestigious committees. He pressured the Rules Committee to send more bills to the floor under restrictions that denied Republicans opportunities to be heard. Republicans complained that Democrats excluded them from committee deliberations on drafting key bills, such as the budget or tax legislation. Wright infuriated Republicans by bringing more legislation directly to the House floor, bypassing the committees altogether. Wright’s provocations drove more House Republicans away from Michel’s congenial approach and toward Gingrich.
Generational change also bolstered Gingrich. Each succeeding election brought in Republicans inspired by Goldwater and then Reagan, reducing the influence of Michel’s generation. The advance guard for change arrived in the 1976 election, which brought to the House 20 new Republican members, including Walker, David Stockman, and Dan Quayle. In 1978, the GOP added 36 new faces, including Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and Jim Sensenbrenner. Another 52 new House Republicans swept in with the 1980 Reagan landslide, including Weber and Gregg. In 1982, Dan Burton and Mack came in with 22 others; two years after that, the 31 freshman Republicans elected amid Reagan’s second landslide included two Texans named Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, who would help lead the Republican resurgence a decade later.
Michel still held the reins, but the party was being remade around him. “We out-recruited the other side slowly and steadily,” Gingrich said. The tipping point inside the Republican caucus came in 1989, when Gingrich won election as whip. He narrowly defeated Michel’s choice, Ed Madigan, a colorless but shrewd insider known as a skilled legislative tactician. The outcome didn’t divide exactly along ideological lines. While some conservatives sided with Madigan (the young DeLay for one), several leading moderates backed Gingrich. And Gingrich ran more on a platform of injecting vitality into the leadership than of lurching it to the right. But Gingrich’s victory still represented a landmark. Madigan’s calling card was his ability to find the places where the two parties could agree; Gingrich was a provocateur skilled at highlighting the places where the two parties disagreed. His victory provided the first institutional foothold for the viewpoint that Republicans could prosper more by fighting than by negotiating with Democrats.
THE PARTISAN APOTHEOSIS
The patrician, courteous, and cautious George H.W. Bush offered the Democrats who controlled the House and Senate throughout his presidency the same implicit trade-off as Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon had. Like them, Bush seemed willing to give ground to Democrats on domestic issues to buy freedom to maneuver abroad. With his promise of a “kinder and gentler” America, he signaled that he intended to set a less confrontational tone than Reagan had. That modest instinct produced compromises between Bush and congressional Democrats on many fronts: an extension of the Clean Air Act; the Americans with Disabilities Act; far-reaching immigration legislation; a civil-rights bill; and, above all, the deal he accepted in 1990 to begin reducing the massive budget deficits of the Reagan era through a combination of spending restraints and tax increases.
Many Americans, accurately, saw the Bush administration as listless and indifferent. As the economy slowed, the demand for a more activist, energetic strategy grew. Democrats exploited those reservations with an occasionally confrontational approach designed to sharpen the differences between the two sides.
But more important, antagonism toward Bush’s approach grew among conservative congressional Republicans. The president frustrated Gingrich’s acolytes by presenting so few positive alternatives to Democratic proposals for new government programs, and he infuriated them—and the outside activists they aligned with—by cutting deals with Democrats. From small-business owners in the NFIB, to gun owners in the National Rifle Association, to antitax and antiregulatory activists, Bush alienated almost every element of the grassroots Republican coalition that had emerged since the 1970s.
The discontent culminated in a full-scale revolt over the budget deal in 1990. When Bush agreed to raise taxes as part of the package—breaking his “no new taxes” pledge—Gingrich led a rebellion among House Republicans. Eventually almost half of them voted against the deal. The objection from Gingrich and his allies was not only ideological but tactical. They rejected the idea of a solution that bridged the differences between the parties. The explicit goal of the conservative House Republicans was to make such accommodations unacceptably painful. “The No. 1 thing we had to prove in the fall of ’90,” Gingrich said later, “was that, if you explicitly decided to govern from the center, we could make it so unbelievably expensive you couldn’t sustain it.”
This was more than a single policy dispute. It was a signal of a more fundamental shift. The revolt against Bush’s budget marked a triumph for the campaign against bipartisan cooperation that the COS had waged through the 1980s. One prosaic measure of success was that, when Bill Clinton proposed to raise taxes in 1993, every Republican in the House and Senate opposed him. But the conservatives’ real success was much broader. After Clinton defeated Bush in 1992, they trumpeted the loss as proof that it was self-defeating for Republicans to pursue bipartisan agreements like the budget deal that could divide or demoralize the party’s ideological base.
Two years after Bush’s defeat, Gingrich led Republicans back to their first House majority in 40 years. The victory was the culmination of his long campaign, a triumph for his effort to transform the House GOP into a militant, polarizing opposition party. “It was a remarkably disciplined vision, and it worked,” Weber said.
Initially, Gingrich emerged as a speaker so powerful that he seemed a prime minister to Bill Clinton’s nearly symbolic head of state, particularly as Gingrich drove his Contract With America through the House. But after Clinton outmaneuvered Gingrich during the budget shutdowns of 1995 and ’96, the speaker never entirely regained his troops’ confidence. As a COS guerrilla, he had brilliantly framed choices that fractured his opponents’ political coalition and enlarged his own; as the speaker, he struggled to find the right mix of confrontation and conciliation to deal with an adversary as protean as Clinton. “We had been in the minority for 40 years, and if we hadn’t polarized [the debate] over the institution, we might still be there,” Weber said. “But that’s not necessarily helpful for governing, and to the extent he was successful as speaker, as much credit goes to Clinton as to Newt.”
After only four years in power, Gingrich resigned amid a rebellion by his own members after his drive to impeach Clinton led to unexpected GOP losses in the 1998 election. That humiliating fall seemed to define Gingrich’s legacy, stamping him as proof of the truism that all revolutions devour their own children. But he has staged a remarkable political resurrection by drawing on the skills that made him such an effective insurgent three decades ago. Just as Gingrich was a better guerrilla than he was a speaker—Mao in the caves, rather than Mao in Beijing—his brilliance at polarizing debate might serve him better as a primary candidate than as a general-election nominee, much less as a president. Still, in his propulsive resurgence, Gingrich is reminding a new generation of friends and foes that he remains among the most skilled, and divisive, political insurgents of our time.
Adopted from The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America (Penguin, 2007)
This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.