Newt Gingrich: The Permanent Insurgency

Newt Gingrich speaks during press conference in Arlington, Virginia, on May 2, 2012.
National Journal
Sept. 30, 2013, 9:11 p.m.

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.

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

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