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Who Broke Washington?

Newt Gingrich: The Permanent Insurgency

Newt Gingrich speaks during press conference in Arlington, Virginia, on May 2, 2012.(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages)

photo of Adam B. Kushner
October 1, 2013

Today's government shutdown is a simulacrum for our broken system, and Newt Gingrich, skipper of shutdowns past, is author of the wreckage. His great innovation was drawing the sharpest possible contrast between Democrats and Republicans—and building a system in which members from both sides would be punished for playing against type. More than any other person in modern American history, the former House speaker is responsible for the victory-at-any-cost partisanship that brought us here. He is the grandfather of Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, and Ted Cruz. He is the godfather of gridlock.

Gingrich always needed a foil, and long before President Clinton, he had Bob Michel. The Republican minority leader was a creature of the old school when Gingrich won election to the House in 1978—an antediluvian figure who believed his party could wield more power by working with the Democratic majority (and president) to pass legislation than by fighting it. Gingrich saw this as a recipe for permanent subjugation and believed the only way to pass consistently conservative policies was to win control of the House.

Slowly, he gathered acolytes who agreed. They began to flay establishment Republicans as quislings and Democrats as corrupt. (Gingrich ultimately forced the resignation of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright by requesting an Ethics Committee investigation into Wright's book contract.) They defined themselves less by their influence behind closed doors and more by their confrontational media message, which they purveyed during bombastic nighttime speeches in the empty chamber, given for the benefit of the C-SPAN cameras that beamed them into more and more homes with the spread of cable. This showboating technique now represents most of what is said on the House floor.

 

In a prelude to today's tea-party-versus-Boehner dynamic, Gingrichites waged open revolt against party leaders on several occasions. When Sen. Bob Dole steered tax hikes through Congress in1982, Gingrich called him the "tax-collector of the welfare state." Gingrich also disliked the immensely popular "Morning in America" message behind President Reagan's 1984 reelection. "Reagan should have prepared … by forcing a polarization of the country," he told the Heritage Foundation that year. "He should have been running against liberals and radicals." In 1990, Gingrich persuaded nearly half of the House GOP to reject George H.W. Bush's deficit-reducing budget, which featured spending cuts but also tax hikes. "The No. 1 thing we had to prove in the fall of '90," he later said, "was that, if you explicitly decided to govern from the center, we could make it so unbelievably expensive you couldn't sustain it." His attacks were hurting Republicans almost as much Democrats, but after the GOP retook the house in 1994 (after 40 years of Democratic control), he avowed that he'd needed to erase the chamber's credibility with the public before he could save it.

By the time Gingrich became speaker (with a commanding majority), he had convinced his party that bipartisanship was self-defeating. Bob Michel suddenly seemed like a dinosaur. Gingrich pushed the Contract with America through his chamber and was so confident in his power that he chose to shut down the government in 1995 and 1996 rather than compromise with Clinton. Then the public turned on him and, chastened, he began to negotiate with the president. Together, they passed welfare reform in 1996 and a balanced budget by 1999. (Gingrich credited ordinary Americans with his turnaround. "It was their political will that brought the two parties together," he said at the budget signing.) It seemed, for a brief period, that after years as a warrior he might be ready to become a dealmaker. But by the end of the Clinton presidency, the trends Gingrich had worked for two decades to shape could not be undone, and when the Lewinsky scandal broke, he returned to form: He impeached the president.

As a House insurgent, of course, Gingrich didn't exist in a vacuum. Speaker Tip O'Neill had overseen a dozen shutdowns of varying length and severity. Then House Democrats pushed Republicans to Gingrich's banner with a series of procedural changes: Wright used the end of seniority to concentrate power in his hands, apportioning chairmanships and plum committee assignments to pliant members who would advance liberals goals. He sometimes sent bills to the floor without opportunities for GOP amendments. And he excluded Republicans from some fiscal deliberations. Still, these changes were largely reactions to the hostile approach Gingrich pioneered, and they didn't yet foreclose bipartisan cooperation. The most radically combative innovations all came from Gingrich as a way to reclaim the majority. More broadly, Gingrich believed that Republicans had made themselves party to a corrupt system of horse-trading and compromise. The only way to break it was to stand on principle.

Voters, however, say they don't want partisan warfare. They blamed the GOP for the shutdowns of the 1990s and ousted five Republicans in 1998 after the impeachment drive, costing Gingrich his job. Nevertheless, the happy warrior had taught denizens of Congress how to win, and since then, both parties have reaped the political rewards of fighting, or at least speechifying for the cameras, rather than breaking bread with their opponents. Both have followed the Hastert rule, which Gingrich first devised. In almost every cycle since Gingrich first arrived in Washington, Republicans have been become more vigilant about punishing deviations from orthodoxy. ("RINO" is now a dangerous appellation.) The rise of Obama's coalition—anchored by young, minority, and wealthy urban voters—has begun to push Democrats in the same direction. As the composition of Congress changed, so did the willingness of lawmakers to haggle over laws. It's no coincidence that, in the years since Gingrich became speaker, the approval of Congress has fallen from 38 to 19 percent.

Since he left Congress, Gingrich has continued to justify the maneuver he became known for. "The Washington establishment believes that the government shutdown of 1995 was a disastrous mistake that accomplished little and cost House Republicans politically. The facts are exactly the opposite," he wrote in a 2011 op-ed. Another shutdown "is not an ideal result, but for House Republicans, breaking their word would be far worse." In a telephone interview, Gingrich points out that Democrats, too, have often stuck to their guns, such as the time they threatened to abandon the 1990 budget negotiations unless Bush abandoned his no-new-taxes pledge. Ultimately, they didn't have to, but "these things happen when you're in a crunch, and people push to see how serious the other side is." And what role did Gingrich have ingraining that approach into his party's DNA? "As much as Goldwater and Reagan did," he says.

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