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What Happened to the Revolution?

In fact, the suppression of individual maneuvers and local priorities, adopted as a ploy for winning the election, had to be continued after that victory in order to enact the Contract. Gingrich had not only toughness to use in the effort—his Sergeant Stryker snarl—but goodies to keep handing out. He had created a cash machine that would assuage the most basic cause of freshman anxiety, the need for reelection funds. Beneficiaries of an anti-incumbent mood could become its victims the next time out. Freshmen fear they have exhausted their local supporters’ coffers in the great effort at a first win. While raising campaign money is a fatiguing labor for all campaigners, House members feel especially vulnerable because of the frequency of their campaigns. And those first elected in 1994 would have to compete again in 1996, a presidential year, with money going to the top of the party’s ticket.

Gingrich allayed their fears by early and heavy support for individual PACs and record contributions from lobbyists. Those tempted to falter under the Gingrich discipline were lured back by the extraordinary access to money Gingrich was providing. Here is the second major irony of the Revolution. Term limits had to be included in the Contract, since they were especially popular with the key Perot voters. Perot had inveighed against incumbents who became tools of K Street, of the Gucci-shod lobbyists and money men, who forgot the concerns of “real people” outside the Beltway. Yet no one has done more to “maximize the incumbency” (as old Nixonites used to say), or to butter up the lobbies, than Gingrich and his fellows in the House leadership. Money raising by congressional officeholders has far surpassed all Democratic equivalents, giving members a big head start for their races in the presidential-election year.

Gingrich was helped by special urgency in the spending schedules of the major lobbies. Tobacco companies were panicking over setbacks in court, new revelations of internal knowledge that nicotine is addictive as well as carcinogenic, and the Clinton administration’s threat to regulate cigarettes as a narcotic. A good deal of the tobacco money used to go to Democrats when the South was still at least partly Democratic. Besides, lobbies tend to spread the money around on the “cover all bases” principle. But in 1994 and 1995 there was a huge swing of this money to the Republicans, as the only hope to hold off serious action on the death rate caused by smoking.

Gun lobbyists, too, were smarting from setbacks like the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons, as well as the blows to their image caused by gun-toting extremists like the Freemen.3 Many Democrats had supported the NRA when the issue was hunting rifles or private handguns, but some were getting uneasy about assault weapons and militia caches. Money had to be directed to Republicans. With their need for right-wing constituents, Republicans could not afford to alienate gun lovers.

Insurers, pharmacists, and the medical lobbies had been given a good scare by the Hillary Clinton health plan. Health reform was still a major issue, and getting a plan that would protect the insurers’ interests meant getting Congress out of the hands of Democrats.4 Other lobbies were frightened by the public’s growing environmental concerns, which meant support for regulations on businesses exploiting natural resources.

Tom DeLay, the congressman from Texas, acting as unofficial treasurer for the Revolution, set up Project Relief to address the concerns of the principal lobbyists, with whom he had regular meetings. John Boehner, from Ohio, convened another group of powerful lobbyists, the Thursday Group. In return for record donations from these interested parties, the lobbyists were given a Capitol office to use as a “war room” for briefing congressional staffs on their requirements, offering model legislation, and actually helping to write bills. The proposed legislation for gutting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was widely known as “Dotty’s draft,” after the lobbyist Dorothy Strunk.

Two important new books document Gingrich’s role in this unprecedented mobilization of money for politics. Dirty Little Secrets, by Larry Sabato and Glenn R. Simpson, though it criticizes the extortionate Democrats who had used incumbency to raise money from lobbyists, finds a quantum breakthrough in Gingrich’s fund-raising strategies. From his earliest campaigns he was ingenious in finding new ways to trade influence for cash. It should have been no surprise when he turned legislating over to the special interests being regulated. He had given access to students in return for money when he set up his televised college seminar.

That operation was based on three devious arrangements. First, he found a sponsor for the course, Kennesaw State College, by getting USAID funds for the college dean’s private consulting firm. Second, he took tax-exempt money for the course even though internal documents published by Sabato and Simpson show that the students were being recruited as Republican voters and activists—that, as Gingrich put it, he meant to capture “first their imagination and then their votes.” Third, he sluiced money through the tax-exempt conduits by promising donors that they could help determine what would be taught.

Sabato and Glenn write:

According to one memo, contributors who put up $50,000 could “work directly with the leadership of the Renewing American Civilization project in the course development process.” Those who put up $25,000 would also be “invited to participate in the course development process,” while those who contributed lesser amounts would also be allowed input.

A fund-raiser in Gingrich’s GOPAC said $20,000 to $25,000 could be procured if a certain journal article was included in the curriculum. Golden Rule Insurance, solicitude for which was traced in the Republicans’ later health proposals, put up $117,000 for the Gingrich organization and was rewarded by having its own propaganda video shown in class time to Gingrich’s students. Roger Milliken, the textile magnate whose donations changed Pat Buchanan’s mind on protectionism, gave $300,000 to “Newt, Inc.,” and was given twenty minutes of class time while Gingrich extolled his genius.

The second bit of essential reading about the new government-by-lobby is The System, by Haynes Johnson and David S. Broder. Its subject is the defeat of the Clinton health plan. Though the authors are clear about the Clintons’ own failures in drawing up and presenting that plan, they indicate that it would have been doomed, no matter what, by the para-government mobilized, largely in secret, to defeat it. Gingrich had made it his mission to destroy whatever plan came up—among other things, as a way of organizing a money network among all the interests opposed to changing the status quo (a status quo that, in other situations, Gingrich liked to call the enemy). He would use what, with typical verbal flair, he called a strategy of “coagulation”: “You want to clot everybody you can away from Clinton. I don’t care what you clot onto, just don’t let it be Clinton.”

Strategy sessions were held by groups so stealthy that one was called the No Name Coalition. Groups that had no obvious connection with health reform came to meetings where the action was—notably representatives of Ralph Reed from the Christian Coalition, a group whose mendacious lobbying is also treated by Sabato and Simpson.5 Reed, behind his cherub’s face, loved the backstairs power he experienced among the No Namers. He had come into the religion-wielding game with this profession:

I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel by night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.

Johnson and Broder show that the lobbying interests forged as a strike unit for the health fight came out from under cover and blatantly moved onto Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the Republicans’ 1994 victory. As usual, Gingrich was an exemplar as well as the inspiration of the process. He gave staff privileges in his office to a telecommunications entrepreneur, Donald Jones, who called from the Speaker’s office when dealing with officials in New Zealand, where he was trying to set up a thirty-million-dollar fiber-optic cable deal of his own. Gingrich also broke House rules when he gave his freewheeling expediter, Joe Gaylord, a staff position.^6

So, after years of attacking Democrats’ corrupt use of incumbency to please lobbyists, Gingrich came not to destroy but to perfect that practice—and to carry it to new heights. His excuse was revolutionary necessity. If money was needed to pass the Contract, that was justified by the fact that the Contract was the people’s will. The alleged mandate excused any tactics needed for its implementation. In this way, the Contract became a money-washing machine. Dirty cash, processed through it, came out clean. The Contract had been asked to perform a wide variety of tasks—but in this case it was being asked to work a miracle.

2.

Build by Destroying

Gingrich likes to think of politics as war (or a war movie), comparing himself at various times to Generals Grant and Eisenhower, or to Napoleon. But his real motto is Danton’s: Il faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace. Effrontery beyond effrontery, like the bud beyond the rose. Deciding early in his congressional career that the House structure was impeding his own rise and that of Republicans in general, Gingrich set out to bring down the Democratic leadership, calling it corrupt, self-protecting, self-perpetuating. It was a waste of time to talk of issues and policies if this malodorous crew was there to block all good policy. The first necessity was to crush them, écraser l’infâme. From his freshman year, he went after his seniors—calling for 1) the expulsion of Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan for payroll padding, 2) the censure rather than reprimand of Representative Gerry Studds of Massachusetts for having sexual relations with a male page ten years before, 3) the punishment of Representative Fernand St. Germain of California for not reporting all his assets, and 4) the investigation of Speaker Jim Wright of Texas for violating House rules on accepting gifts and earning outside income. Not content with demolition raids on the Democrats, Gingrich opposed the Republican President’s budget when that seemed too accommodating. Weakness on one’s own side had to be punished as well as evil on the other side. As he told a group of Young Republicans: “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” If anyone could nasty the troops up, it was Newt Stryker.

The obverse of sugarcoating one’s own proposals was to drench the other side’s acts or statements in the language of revulsion. Opponents were not just wrong but vicious, corrupt, grotesque, sick, or insane—favorite Gingrich adjectives. Every conceivable ill could be blamed on Democrats—Woody Allen’s relations with Mia Farrow’s teen-age daughter, a mother’s drowning of her children in the South, the ripping of a baby from its murdered mother’s womb in Chicago. This kind of guilt-by-fanciful-association became a kind of omnidirectional scapegoating with Gingrich. All the problems of the poor could be blamed on attempts to help the poor. “The Sixties” was a term invokable any time some nut shot another person, or TV got violent, or writers were more sexually explicit than Gingrich had been in his own mildly racy novel. The White House was a “McGovernik” den of drug users.

  1. 3

    Republicans responsive to the gun lobby were in the odd position of saying that the assault-weapons ban and Brady Bill were so minor that they did not affect violence but so major that they threatened us with a Gestapo government.

  2. 4

    James Fallows also blames the press for the failure of the health care debate. In his new book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines American Democracy (Pantheon, 1996), he shows how abjectly other journalists accepted the deeply flawed and misleading screed of Elizabeth McCaughey, published in The New Republic.

  3. 5

    Sabato and Simpson show how ready the Christian Coalition is to engage in hardball politics, playing fast and loose with the truth (and with the rules governing its tax-exempt status). In the “score cards” given out at churches, targeting Democrats, voting records are wildly distorted. A vote, for instance, against the amendment to make a three-fifths majority necessary for tax raises was listed simply as a vote against balancing the budget. And a vote against using federal funds for discussing homosexuality in the schools was counted as a vote for discussing homosexuality in schools—because the bill voted on was less stringent than another proposal, preferred by the Coalition, which never came to a vote.

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