The government is closed.
There’s really no better way to illustrate the pervasive dysfunction that for years now has gripped Washington. After years of shutdown threats, debt-ceiling standoffs, filibusters, dead-end legislation and endless posturing — on the floor, on cable news, on talk radio, on Twitter — both sides have succeeded, finally, in bringing things to a crashing halt.
And for many, both in this town and outside of it, the persistent, polarized environment is accepted with a shrug.
But it wasn’t always this way. And it didn’t just happen. A handful of Washington players bear inordinate responsibility for the state we’re in. We’ve asked eight National Journal writers to name names — to identify the people who broke Washington. For the next four days, we’ll post the results. Disagree with the choices? Nominate your own here.
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.
- Adam B. Kushner
Bill Clinton didn’t set out to swipe the Republicans’ traditional agenda and send the GOP down the road to radicalization. Nor did the 42nd president set out to polarize the country. But these were the unintended effects of his political strategies — as brilliant as they were in getting him elected.
Clinton’s preferred course would have been to govern as a warm-hearted Democratic populist like his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, uniting the country behind an agenda of “bold, persistent experimentation” (an FDR phrase Clinton used in his first inaugural speech), long-time Clinton acquaintances have said. Soon after taking office Clinton laid a wreath at Hyde Park, placed an iconic bust of FDR in the Oval Office and, in policy terms, one White House official later recalled, “talked far more about Roosevelt than JFK” (the president with whom, during the 1992 campaign, he’d hoped voters would identify him).
But Clinton was also the savviest politician of his generation, and by the early ‘90s he saw it was no longer feasible to run or govern as a traditional New Deal Democrat. Ronald Reagan had changed the terms of the debate. Clinton championed the Democratic Leadership Council, which was the party’s concession to the emerging zeitgeist: “market-based solutions” and deference to smaller government. Nor was it Clinton’s fault that, by the time he ran for president, the “Reagan Revolution” had only gone half way. It deregulated and freed up the economy to market forces, but Reagan’s faltering attachment to the theory of supply-side economics — his reluctance to cut government spending at the same time as he cut taxes, on the idea that lower taxes would unleash more prosperity — had left behind a fiscal disaster: A government that was just as big, but badly underfunded. His economic advisors counseled that he had to tackle the deficit first, traditionally a Republican concern.
And so the stage was set for a political hijacking: bit by bit, piece by piece, “triangulating” his way toward the center once occupied by mainstream Republicans, Clinton remade the Democratic Party in the image of the old GOP. In an interview a few years ago, his long-time friend and first chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty, recalled the decisive moment two weeks before the inauguration at a big economic gathering Clinton held in Little Rock to fulfill his campaign promise of “putting people first.” “Bob Rubin [who would go on to become director of Clinton’s National Economic Council and then Treasury secretary] called me from Washington that morning,” McLarty recalled. “It reminded me of the Houston- NASA thing. He said, ‘Mac, we’ve got a problem.’ And I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘The deficit is considerably larger than we thought it was going to be.’ And what that really meant was the beginning of the hard choices. The middle class tax cut he had promised, and some of the programs that our more traditional Democrats had felt were essential.”
Clinton ultimately tackled the deficit, the bond market rewarded him and the economy began to boom. And like Walter White getting lured deeper and deeper into the meth trade in “Breaking Bad,” Clinton found himself enticed into other parts of the GOP agenda like “workfare” reform and championing NAFTA. He hired David Gergen, who had been an advisor to three Republican presidents. He began using the Reaganesque phrase, “The era of big government is over.” Clinton himself became uncomfortably aware of his transformation, telling his aides sarcastically (according to Bob Woodward in The Agenda): “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we’re fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower taxes and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”
At the same time as he drove them rightward , Clinton alienated Republicans with his polarizing tactics. His 1993 budget passed both the House and the Senate without a single Republican vote. The same deep partisan split occurred over his plans to raise top marginal tax rates in order to cut the deficit. That lead to the “Contract with America” Gingrich revolution and the takeover of the House in 1994, the precursor to the shock that another polarizing centrist Democrat, Barack Obama, would face in 2010. Under Rubin’s guidance, Clinton’s increasing coziness with Wall Street also bequeathed a growing populist anger that led to a splitting off of the libertarian right from the GOP and of the progressive left from the Democratic Party, further breaking down the consensus in Washington. This became especially acute after many of the deregulatory financial policies that began during the Clinton years, such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall law separating federally sponsored commercial banking from riskier investment banking, led directly to the financial crash of 2008 and giant Wall Street bailouts.
The political dynamics that underlay the government shutdown fight of 1994-95 gave the best evidence of the ever-rightward shift of the politics of Washington. Gingrich, the grandiose new Speaker who saw himself as an historic transformational figure, viewed the GOP takeover of the House as a mandate for drastic cuts in spending and a balanced budget. Clinton, still triangulating, initially showed flexibility in budget negotiations. That only made Gingrich more self-confident that he could get his way. As the budget fight continued, Gingrich insisted on his entire program, including tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in Medicare. After he hinted on “This Week with David Brinkley” that as speaker he might refuse to raise the debt limit in April 1995, the political struggle erupted into open war. Gingrich publicly threatened that the U.S. might have to default on its debt for the first time in its history. Eventually the government shut down, leading to bitterness and finger-pointing on both sides.
And so, by the time Clinton cheated on First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky and then lied about it, it was no surprise that his gleeful GOP foes responded with impeachment, further polarizing the country. No less a GOP stalwart than Alan Greenspan would later write in his memoir: “I think Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.” But rather than ushering in a new era of bipartisanship, Clinton’s move to the middle drove the GOP farther to the right and permanently broke the delicate political mechanism of compromise.
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