It can seem so terribly unfair. Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to their first majority in the House of Representatives since 1955, and then to two successive majorities for the first time since the 1920s. He forced welfare reform and a balanced budget onto President Clinton. His reward for this record of accomplishment? Spurious ethics charges, anonymous quotes in the Washington Post from Republican congressmen about how much better things have worked since he quit the speakership, and a Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination that Gingrich coveted whose rhetoric is very largely intended to separate himself as widely as possible from the once all-conquering Newt. On the other hand, it all seemed rather less terribly unfair last week, when C-SPAN broadcast its three-segment interview with Gingrich.
By unfortunate coincidence, C-SPAN broadcast the third and final segment only four hours after it carried a major policy address by George W. Bush, a speech on education to the Latino Business Expo in Los Angeles. Bush called for enlarging the federal Department of Education, imposing stricter federal supervision on state and local school systems, and limiting the role of vouchers to an emergency treatment for the worst-functioning districts. Four years ago, and certainly eight, a Republican candidate who took such a New Democrat approach to schooling would have provoked a mutiny on the right, but Bush has already pocketed the conservative vote, and his only serious competitor for the nomination is Elizabeth Dole, who has gravitated even further leftward.
The abject disarray of the once-formidable conservative wing of the party is not entirely Gingrich’s fault. But it is very largely his fault, and his interview nicely reminded viewers of how he led conservatives to their present unhappy pass.
Through most of the 1980s, Gingrich had been just one of dozens of clever young congressmen who identified themselves with the excitement of the Reagan revolution. In those long-ago days, a Vin Weber or Jim Courter would have seemed as good a bet to recapture the speakership for the GOP—actually a better bet than Newt, since Gingrich was then widely seen as a flighty and undisciplined free-lancer. But time and chance worked in his favor. Congressmen from swing states, like Courter’s New Jersey, lost their seats. Congressmen from solid Republican states, like Mississippi’s Trent Lott, ascended to the Senate. Others despaired of perpetual minority status and quit politics altogether. By 1990, Gingrich had become the unquestioned leader of the conservatives in the House. The Bush budget deal promoted him to conservative national leadership. Jack Kemp’s decision to seek a cabinet seat in the Bush administration—rather than challenge Mario Cuomo for the governorship of New York in 1990—and Kemp’s unwillingness to resign that seat silenced the supply-sider when the senior Bush broke his no-new-taxes pledge. Gingrich denounced Bush, and with that act positioned himself to lead the opposition to Bill Clinton after 1992.
Every leader remakes his movement in his own image, and between 1990 and 1998, Gingrich reshaped Republican conservatism. Unlike his deal-making elders in the House leadership, Gingrich was a fighter, and he imbued conservatism with his own fierce combativeness. Gingrich’s concept of fighting was the scoring of parliamentary victories to expose the high-handedness and corruption of the Democratic majority. In the C-SPAN interviews, Gingrich discusses at some length how he used television (C-SPAN, actually) as a weapon against Tip O’Neill. Gingrich, Bob Walker, and other allies would use the quiet hours of “special orders” to give one-minute speeches in the well of the House denouncing the Democratic leadership. These stinging orations so irritated O’Neill that he ordered the House camera to pan the chamber during special orders so that viewers could see that nobody was listening—provoking such a ruckus that more people than ever tuned in.
Gingrich’s greatest parliamentary victory, of course, was his more or less single-handed bringing down of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright on corruption charges. Gingrich dutifully acknowledges that it was the errors of the Clinton administration—the health care plan, the tax increases, and gays in the military—that toppled the Democratic Congress in 1994, but he does not really believe it. After the perfunctory acknowledgment, he devotes most of his airtime to talking about what he imagines really did the trick: the discrediting of the Democratic leadership through scandals like Wright’s.
There may be some truth to this, although one wonders whether ethics charges could really produce the 10 million vote shift of 1994. Believing in the truth of it had, however, immense consequences for the Gingrich-led conservative movement. In trying to upend the congressional Democrats through procedural victories in Congress, Gingrich directed the reforming zeal of conservatives toward the procedures of Congress. Instead of tax cuts, the building of a post-Communist world order, equal justice under law regardless of race, the cultural and linguistic unity of the United States, or any of the dozen other powerful potential issues available to them in the mid-1990s, conservatives found themselves talking about term limits, a balanced budget amendment, House members’ bank, the line-item veto, and a series of other issues equally remote from Americans’ everyday concerns. The logical culmination of this way of thinking was the Contract With America, which spent the energies of the biggest Republican congressional swing since 1894 on six months of votes on the internal governance of the House of Representatives.
Throughout his C-SPAN interview, Gingrich referred to his passion for “ideas.” But in the procedural politics that Gingrich sold to conservatives, ideas had only a weak independent existence. (Even now, Gingrich’s idea of an idea is, as he repeatedly stressed, delivering better health care at a lower cost. Until one has some notion of how the job can be done, that’s an aspiration, not an idea.) Gingrich’s indifference to the grand themes of a Ronald Reagan followed naturally from his approach to politics. Grand themes appeal to national electorates. Congressmen, obviously, don’t have national electorates. Their electorates are particular and local. A leader who seeks to attain national power by building a congressional majority is naturally going to be inclined to shun the grand themes of a presidential candidate and instead try to identify issues that could move particular and local blocs of voters out of his opponent’s coalition and into his own. That’s how proposals like the repeal of the so-called marriage penalty (the higher tax rates faced by married couples with two incomes as compared to two equivalent single filers) and treating western water-use rights as private property protected by the Fifth Amendment came to move ahead of Reagan-style grand initiatives on the Republican agenda.
This made considerable tactical sense, but it left Republicans speechless and defenseless in their 1995-1996 battles with Bill Clinton. As the president framed his defense of Medicare in the broad language of ideals, Republicans were left sputtering that their so-called “cuts” amounted to barely a couple of dollars a month. Clinton had a big idea about Medicare; Gingrich never did. It was the Reagan-Carter fight in reverse—principle vs. technicalities. To this day, conservatives have not recovered from Gingrich’s down-grading of thematics. In 1999, for the first time since the 1940s, there is no generally accepted conservative agenda. Conservatives have dozens, even hundreds, of projects and concepts. But the clarity and power that comes from saying first we’ll do this, then we’ll do that, when this and that speak to the values and interests of tens of millions of people—that has been lost.
Because Gingrich lacked a unifying political vision of his own, he was susceptible to the sort of populism that postulates some hypothetical “will of the people” that politicians must detect and serve. This susceptibility explains why Gingrich got so caught up in fads and trends: He felt that if he squinted hard enough at them, he could detect the people’s wishes. In his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, he interpreted the success of the Star Wars movies as proof that Americans yearned for a renaissance of the space program. In his 1992 speech to the Republican convention, he interpreted rising quality standards in the private sector as proof that the public had wearied of the bureaucratic welfare state. Gingrich taught a generation of conservative intellectuals to sleuth out the potential political implications of the success of particular movies, songs, and television shows. It was an amusing parlor game, but it dangerously disparaged the importance of political leadership. In truth, nothing in politics happens spontaneously—which is why it proved such a catastrophe when Gingrich made the fateful decision in early 1998 to let the electorate lead Congress on the Lewinsky scandal, postponing action on Clinton’s perjury for the eight fateful months until Ken Starr delivered his report.
As Clinton again and again bested Gingrich, conservatives lost faith in the political appeal of their message. As Gingrich’s parliamentary tactics proved useless against the agenda-setting power of the president, conservatives came to doubt not merely their tactics, but their doctrines. And once Clinton escaped punishment for his crimes, conservatives’ uncontainable rage convinced them that his successor must be defeated, even at the price of nominating a Republican presidential candidate who owed conservatives little and liked them even less.
Much fun has been made of Gingrich’s self-comparison to Henry Clay. But what was dismaying about Gingrich’s interview was not the reappearance of his familiar fondness for grandiose historical self-comparisons, but the reminder of how much he once promised conservatives—and how they have since fallen.