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 Jan. 28, 2012, edition of National Journal.