A “bomb thrower” when his party was in the minority, the Speaker for the majority was expected to become less a terminator and more a temporizer after his ascent to power. His inaugural address was eirenic. He claimed that he was interested in passing bills now, not destroying people. But the very speed with which he drove the Contract through the House began to look like an empty exercise as things bogged down in the Senate. Gingrich took to saying that he promised to bring the items to a vote, not to make them law. Representative Barney Frank paraphrased this, at the time, as a car salesman’s comment: “I didn’t promise to sell you a car, I promised to show you a car.” Gingrich could bring pressure on Bob Dole, since the Senate leader would need the party’s right wing in the primary season of 1996; but Dole, in turn, could say there was no point to offering legislation in a form satisfactory to Contract supporters if the bills would (for this very reason) be vetoed by the President.
Faced with this problem, Gingrich decided to go straight for the major obstacle. He would break the President’s power entirely, make it impossible for him to offer a veto without bringing his own house down about his head. This was building by destroying in the most grandiose way. “Gridlock” would be broken by “train wreck.” The government, Reagan had taught Republicans to believe, was the problem, not the solution. All right, then shut the government down.
The instrument Gingrich chose to shove his dynamite into the logjam was the balanced budget. This was not his own favorite part of the Contract, but his fellow revolutionaries were doctrinaire on it—Tom DeLay, John Kasich, Richard Armey. It was a Perot item. And it had the advantage of accomplishing other Republican goals by indirection. If the budget were to be balanced in seven years (another of Gingrich’s magic numbers), programs obnoxious to Republicans would have to be cut back or closed down for sheer lack of funds.
Some were surprised that people who proclaimed their admiration for Ronald Reagan would take an approach to the economy so different from his. He blithely ran the deficit up to dizzy new heights. They were intent on chopping the budget down with a ruthless axe. But the virtue of the two approaches was the same. The high deficit had inhibited government expenditures in the wake of the Reagan years. Now the Republicans would take the next step, cutting the reduced spending even further by attempts to bring the deficit back down. Heads, the poor lose. Tails, the poor lose. Guess who, either way, wins?
In any true sense, the Constitution does not permit Congress to “shut down” the government. Precisely because Congress controls the purse, it is forbidden to abuse its powers by rewarding or punishing the president monetarily. It may not cut, increase, or suspend his pay during his tenure. Article Two, Section I, Clause 7 reads: “The president shall, at stated times, receive for his services a compensation which shall neither be increased or diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected.” Since judges have life tenure and a no-raise policy would itself be punitive, the Congress is only forbidden to cut or suspend judges’ pay. Article Three, Section I: “The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall… receive for their services a compensation which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.” And Congress must, according to Article One, Section VI, Clause 1, pay its own salary. A real “shutdown” is therefore impossible. Besides, Congress would not dare to cut off certain funds within its power of the purse—for the armed sevices (including veterans’ hospitals), or federal law-enforcement agencies. The “shutdown” had to suspend certain services, not government itself.
Even on such limited terms, this move was a maximum strike, stepping over calibrated measures of escalation. If it failed, there was no bigger weapon left in the arsenal. And it was important to make the President look responsible for the suspension of services—a difficult thing, since he has no power to cut off legislated funds. President Nixon lost in the courts his battle over impounding funds, and Congress had not yet given the President a line-item veto.
The congressional game was to package together the legislation for continued funding with a balanced-budget schedule unacceptable to Clinton. If he vetoed the bill on the latter grounds, he would automatically veto the funding part, too. This move was unconstitutional in spirit. It tried to forge veto-proof legislation. If a president uses his veto against a bill, and Congress does not have the vote to override, the normal solution envisaged by the Constitution is for the legislation to be dead until and unless the president is persuaded to give up his veto or the legislation is altered to meet his objections. The veto was designed to avoid giving the president laws that he considers it impossible, or imprudent, or wrong, to execute. Congress is given the final say, but only after a careful consideration of the difficulty raised by the executive—carefulness being registered in the higher margin required for an override.
If Congress had presented its seven-year plan as a separate matter, the President would have vetoed it, and Congress probably did not have the votes for an override. Matters had to be so contrived that if the law were vetoed, payment for selected services would stop. This would make the President’s veto the chronological (though not legal) occasion for the suspended services. Gingrich was betting that the President would buckle, unwilling to take the step that would deprive some federal workers of their pay just as Christmas was approaching.
Gingrich was confident that Clinton “had no backbone.” Once again he fell for his own rhetoric. He was so contemptuous and dismissive of the opposition that he underestimated it. Also, his own troops’ anti-government rhetoric made light of the consequences of cutting off federal funds. If government is the problem, the nation might be better off if its offices went dark. But that blithe attitude would not survive any long siege. Leaving federal workers unpaid, week after week, put a human face on “the bureaucracy”—just as the blowing up of the federal office building in Oklahoma City had. Punishing actual people is not the same as making ideological jokes about the worthless government. Only belatedly did some Republicans begin to fear that the suicide rate at Christmas, high even in normal times, would suggest that one or more suicides occurred among suspended federal workers for lack of their government pay.
The President, while refusing to crumple at the first assault, had to show a sweet reasonableness in negotiation—a luxury Gingrich was not permitted. If Clinton were totally intransigent, he might look uncaring toward the workers—and that might bring enough votes for an override. If he just gave in, he would be deserting his own party’s essential base. Temporizing on Clinton’s part put the ball back in Gingrich’s court, and he had inspired his troops with an intransigence to which he was now held hostage. Bob Dole, never an enthusiast for this extreme measure, was ready to back off; but that made some members of the House who had endorsed him for the presidential campaign threaten to disendorse him. Gingrich, spending hours with the President, his fellow policy wonk, was suspected of desertion from his own hard line, and others in the leadership deputed Richard Armey to go in with Gingrich and monitor his performance. Revolutionary leaders end, by the inevitable ratcheting-up of their situation, trying to out-radical each other—Danton and Marat are succeeded by Saint-Just and Robespierre. When Gingrich seemed to lose the revolutionary fire in his belly, Armey was pushed forward as the scowling Marat. Behind him stood Kasich as a baby-faced Saint-Just and DeLay as a pocket-calculator Robespierre.
Some have wondered why, when Clinton made his key concessions to a seven-year balancing plan based on stingy congressional numbers, the Republicans did not just declare victory and restore services. But this misses the point of the balanced budget’s role in the Revolution. It was espoused not from a love for sound fiscal procedure, but for its instrumental value in cutting down government. Some of the demands in the Republican package were the ends toward which balancing the budget was merely one means—immediate tax cuts, direct assault on entitlements like Medicare. The fervor for these explained intransigent demands on the budget, not vice versa.
Because of Gingrich’s accessibility and talkativeness during the first year of his Revolution, the accounts of his own reactions to events are particularly full and authentic. Elizabeth Drew traces extensively his faltering and dismay during the negotiations with the White House. He confessed to her that he totally misread Clinton. He also fooled himself with his own Engler Paradigm. Speaking to the Republican leadership on January 2, 1996, he admitted:
We made a mistake. We miscalculated the effect our pressure would have on Clinton in December…. One thing we didn’t recognize that I should have seen is that I always believed in talking to you about Engler and [Massachusetts governor] Weld, that we could survive low poll numbers if we accomplished what we set out to do. Our polls would come back when the people saw that we kept our promises. The mistake was that we only read the poll numbers from our side. We expected that there would be a slump in our poll numbers, but we didn’t calculate that a surge in Clinton’s numbers would cause him to dig in even more.
The sentence I have italicized represents a fairly basic error. It has its psychological explanation in the fact that Gingrich accepted his own supporters’ belief that he was now in control of the government. The Engler Paradigm compared his situation with that of a chief executive, not a mere legislator in the lower house. Engler had to work with the Michigan legislature to enact his cuts in welfare and the property tax, but he did not have in office a rival executive whose polls could be a factor. Gingrich, comparing himself to Engler, was acting like a chief executive, playing president even before running for president.
That key miscalculation shows how Gingrich conceived his role. He wanted his own chronicler to be on hand as he rose straight to the top. Even when his polls started their long decline, he did not discourage speculation that he would run for the White House in 1996. He hoped his ratings would dip and then soar, like Engler’s. Various conservatives, unhappy at the prospect of a Dole candidacy, encouraged talk of Gingrich as the man of the hour. That was the message of Arianna Huffington, the would-be Madame de Staël of this Revolution, when she wrote her articles for The Wall Street Journal or The Weekly Standard.
David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf are especially good on the internal spats and hysteria as the Republican leadership came to recognize that its big gun had misfired. Gingrich, who had shown amazing stamina for most of the year—constantly “on,” living from caucus to TV appearance to book tour to press conference—became snappish and weepy. On December 6, in the middle of the budget crisis, when he learned that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate his ethics, he broke down suddenly—in the words of Maraniss and Weisskopf, “sobbing like a child, heaving and shaking.” Earlier, his petulance out of control, he had said that he had closed down the government because of a snub on Air Force One:
Even as he was talking, Gingrich realized that he was making a mistake. He could not control himself. He blurted out that his press secretary, Tony Blankley, who was pacing back and forth at the rear of the room, would certainly be uneasy about what he was saying and the way he was saying it.
Gingrich’s sense of affront came from an assurance about his mandate. How could he, the new center of government, not be honored with more time with the President on Air Force One (a flying-carpet throne to which he meant to succeed)? “You just wonder,” he told his wondering audience, “Where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?” There is something poignant about this “bomb thrower”—a man who disregarded pleas for comity when he was savaging fellow representatives in the House, and who told Young Republicans to take nasty lessons—now suffering the vapors over a lapse in politesse. Attila had morphed overnight into Miss Manners.
As polls showed that the longer the suspension of government went on, the more Republicans were blamed, Gingrich had to strike a deal without the full tax and Medicare cuts he had been insisting on. His gung-ho troops were against “surrender,” so the disciplinarian who had earlier held them to their pledges now ordered the abandonment of them. Meeting with the Republican caucus, Gingrich first told one member to “sit down and shut up,” then issued his personal fiat: “This is a team vote and we’re going to do this as a team. We’re all wearing the same jerseys today. Sometimes you don’t agree with the plays that are called. But this is the way we’re going.”
What would happen if anyone did not vote with the team? Gingrich said he would not punish such a person, but he would keep a list, and “If any of you [on the list] come up and talk about how the team’s got to help you out, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Gingrich had used his own supposed adamancy as a battering ram, but in the final rush on the wall, the battering ram had shattered, not the wall. People’s perception of Gingrich as a purely negative force led to the reaction against him personally, making him the most unpopular politician on the national scene. Even those who disliked Gingrich had, heretofore, credited him with political shrewdness. Now they were wondering about that. Did he really think the public would not blame Republicans for the so-called shutdown, when he had promised it beforehand to intimidate Clinton? Were people too stupid to notice that some of the services shut down—like federal parks and museums—were ones Republicans opposed anyway?
The crowning irony is that Gingrich did more than anyone or anything else to make Clinton look good. It had been a hackneyed journalistic theme that these two men were eerily alike—self-indulgent baby boomers with no military service, better at “process” than on issues, good counterpunchers, glib, proud of their ability to talk themselves out of trouble. But when the two were brought together for protracted negotiations, though Clinton may not have grown, he seemed to have, so precipitately did Gingrich shrink. Clinton had the better feel for his adversary, as he does for people in general. Gingrich is the bright boy who has to show you all he knows at once. His air of certitude makes him brittle. He began to suspect what other Republicans were sure of, that Clinton was “playing him like an organ.” He was uncertain of himself under all the bluster.
One of the things to be said of Clinton is that there is a full (if flawed) human being behind the façade. It is hard to feel confident about that in Gingrich’s case. The contrast shows up in Clinton’s almost comically large circle of real friends. Gingrich has a thousand allies and no friends, as the backbiting he suffered from his fellows in the budget fight demonstrated. There is no resonance from depths sounded in him, just the empty darkness where movie images flicker endlessly.
The weird thing is that Gingrich thought Clinton was a cardboard figure who could be brought down with a string of delegitimating adjectives. He was amazed to find in Clinton a real person, and that was intimidating. He also confided to Drew that Bob Dole awed him, that he felt compelled to ingratiate himself with Dole, as he had felt before with his stepfather. Clinton critics say that he seems at times to be arrested at an adolescent stage. If so, Gingrich would have to be seen as stuck in an even earlier stage, of childhood. Still, it must have been a shock for Peggy Noonan, still patient by the guillotine, when the head that plopped into the basket was Newt’s.