Newt Gingrich: The Permanent Insurgency

Newt Gingrich speaks during press conference in Arlington, Virginia, on May 2, 2012.
National Journal
Adam B. Kushner
See more stories about...
Adam B. Kushner
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.

What We're Following See More »
BACKING OUT ON BERNIE
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
2 days ago
THE LATEST

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
TRUMP FLOATED IDEA ON JIMMY KIMMEL’S SHOW
Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
3 days ago
THE LATEST
CAMPAIGNS INJECTED NEW AD MONEY
California: It’s Not Over Yet
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.

Source:
×