• Email
  • Print

What Happened to the Revolution?

Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House

by Elizabeth Drew
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $25.00

Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival

by Dan Balz, by Ronald Brownstein
Little, Brown, 424 pp., $24.95

Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics

by Larry J. Sabate, by Glenn R. Simpson
Times Books, 430 pp., $25.00

How could it have faded so fast—the joyous delirium with which Republicans only last year took charge of the Congress and (they were certain) of the nation? It was announced that Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speech writer, would go back to Washington to do a book on the Revolution. The new Speaker of the House was sworn in with the trappings of a presidential installation. His first Hundred Days were finished with a prime-time address on network TV. First-timers in Congress, unlike their predecessors, came to instruct or to shove aside their elders. The President was reduced to claims that he was—not (like Al Haig) “in charge,” not (like the Supreme Court) important, but (like the weather) “relevant.” A president does not feel the need to inform us that he is not a crook, or not irrelevant, unless appearances are all to the contrary.

There was a nice blend of populism and pedagogy in the ascendancy of professors from out-of-the-way colleges—Dr. Gingrich, Dr. Armey. These were theorists of revolution, who liked to explain what they were doing. Gingrich held daily press conferences before opening House sessions, where he ticked off the items on his legislative agenda. He had brought with him his own chronicler, by the device of appointing the man’s wife as House historian. Beyond merely studying history, these were people come to make it.

Pundits debated whether Gingrich would become president in 1996 or wait till 2000. Others seriously asked if that would not be a demotion, since the election had made Congress the center of government. Young “Newties” like Enid Waldholtz, the new member from Utah, were swept past senior representatives to key places on committees. Democrats looked cowed, because they were. Republicans looked invincible, because they thought they were:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven…

Wordsworth’s poem on the French Revolution might have been written for the heady opening days of the Gingrich Era, when all things seemed possible. The Republicans had

…helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand plastic as they could wish.

Hopes beyond hopes would defy the seasons of orderly change, to see

The budding rose above the rose full blown.

The Contract would be passed. The question was not whether, but how soon. The agencies would fall. The question was which ones would be cut, which killed. The President could do little to affect or deter what was happening. Even the veto must yield to the Will of the People, so resoundingly expressed in all the 1994 elections—for Senate, for House, for governors, for legislatures. Rarely, it seemed, had a movement united so large a constituency so unequivocally. Welfare, bureaucracy, regulations, career politicians—for all of these the End had come. Madame Noonan was knitting purple prose beside the guillotine.

The very giddiness, for those who know the gods’ ways, was ominous. But who could have predicted the suddenness of the peripeteia? A year later, Clinton was not only relevant but regnant. Gingrich was not the leader of his party but a drag on it, his polls even lower than the sinking approval rate for Congress in general and the whole Republican party in particular. Instead of a rosebud over the blown rose, Gingrich was a millstone below the plummet lines. While some were talking of Hillary Clinton’s “high negatives” (42 percent), Gingrich registered a whopping 52 percent disapproval.1 The man who taught other Republicans what to say in order to win was now being asked by his own creatures not to say anything, lest he make them lose. Revolutions are known to devour their own; but it seemed that this one barely had time to develop an appetite before it gulped down Gingrich.

What happened? Several books help us understand that the villain in the piece was, as is usual in such cases, also the hero. Gingrich was undone by his own devices. He had the genius to invent the “congressional mandate,” and the gullibility to believe in his own invention. A master of destructive techniques, he did not suspect that mere destruction destroys itself. A quick-change artist, he thought he could change society with political tools, which is like changing the weather with a thermometer. Each of these things deserves our attention.

1.

Congressional Mandate

It would be hard to overstate the audacity of the Contract With America. No one had ever before tried to create a national mandate from congressional elections. The president normally claimed to have a commission from all the people, derived from the larger turnout of a presidential year, when only the presidential ticket can be voted for by everyone. Congressional delegates, appealing to local constituents, are sent to represent their sectors of society—a scatter of interests, a babble of voices, a plethora of issues to be compromised.

Actually, even the presidential mandate is largely a fiction, as political scientists have long recognized. A president says, “I supported X and was elected by the people, so the people want X.” Actually, many voters were uninterested in X or ignorant of the candidate’s stand on it. Others were opposed to X, but willing to vote for the candidate because of his stands on Y and Z. Some voted for the candidate simply because he was not his opponent (exit polls showed that was a major reason people voted for Reagan over Carter). Some cast their ballots for John Kennedy because he was a Catholic, or good-looking, or sweated less in debate. Was that a “mandate” for being beautiful? Elections are clumsy tools for setting policy. All they determine is who will be carrying out policy for a while.

If a presidential mandate is shadowy at best, what can one expect of a congressional “mandate,” assembled from so many different regional contests, embodied in no single spokesperson, reflecting agendas and urgencies not universally shared (or not shared with the same intensity)? Why, in fact, would that be desirable? The Constitution envisages local people committing their trust to a delegate who will represent their interests in deliberation with the delegates from other areas. It is one of the many ironies of Gingrich’s movement that, while professing to return government to state and local levels, he urged candidates at those levels to run a national campaign, restricting their campaign themes to those dictated by his national brain trust, forgoing the luxury of response to the particular needs of particular constituents.

How could such a congressional agenda be put together? Two books give us a detailed description of the Contract’s formulation—Showdown, by Elizabeth Drew, and Storming the Gates, by Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein. More important than the items included in the Contract were those excluded. Divisive issues were suppressed for the duration of the campaign—abortion, school prayer, gun ownership. The point was not to have a discussion of issues people feel deeply about, but to concentrate on areas of maximum agreement. The goal was to win. The Contract offered the strategy for a takeover. After getting control of the Senate and House, Gingrich assured the restive, Republicans could reward their friends, take care of the gun lobby, cut off funds for abortion, kill campaign reforms.

In the Contract, Gingrich assembled targets of opportunity—safe targets like taxes, crime, the deficit, government regulations, lawyers. Some items were not favored by some “contractees.” Gingrich himself had no love for term limits. But individual preferences had to be sacrificed to the general effort.

Once the issues were chosen, and arranged in a canonic decade (Gingrich believes in the power of magic numbers—three and seven and ten), the pollster Frank Luntz was asked to find the most seductive ways of phrasing each point. He found that even the word “Republican” was too divisive for inclusion, so the Republican Contract became just the Contract With America. Since one aim of the 1994 campaign was to win back Perot voters to the Republicans, formulation of Contract items favored by Perot voters got privileged treatment by Luntz. Terminological sugarcoating would be important throughout the Revolution.

The problem with taking a presidential “mandate” as some hard commission on policy is increased five hundredfold with any congressional mandate. How many of those who won their congressional races neglected or downplayed the Contract? How many of those who lost had invoked it? Despite the Republican National Committee’s expenditure ($265,000) to disseminate the Contract in TV Guide, only 17 percent of voters said they were aware of it. Those who knew about it were hazy on its contents. And did those aware of the Contract subscribe to all its items, or just a majority of them, or just one or two points important to them? Which points, and in which combinations? Did the sugarcoating, meant to distract from problems or to deter questioning, actually mislead? How many of the Republican victories reflected simply an anti-incumbent attitude grown abnormally strong in 1994?

There is no denying the effectiveness of the Contract as a campaign tool. It probably did sway a marginal portion of the voters, which is all that can be expected of a campaign ploy. But only those bemused by a metaphor can think that the American people entered into a binding compact to exact from signers of the Contract all the items mentioned in it. The Contract language was invented to please people tired of politics as usual. “See,” it said, “we are not your normal politicians making promises; we are contracting with you to do what you want and if we fail to do it, throw us out” (this last phrase was a real winner with Perot voters surveyed by Luntz).

If voters fell for that hocus-pocus, well and good for the Republicans. But Gingrich was so in love with his own invention that he fell for it himself. There were some early signs that people were not as ardent for the Contract as he claimed they were. The elderly were quick to respond to attempts to limit their benefits (point seven of the Contract, sugarcoated as “fairness for senior citizens”). The Contract gimmick was meant to tell voters they could hold candidates to an enforceable pledge; but Gingrich now wanted to hold the American people to a contractual obligation they supposedly assumed when they voted Republican.

When, responding to such misgivings, some Republicans in the House were tempted to waver, Gingrich held them to the Contract—and, through them, required the people to “keep their bargain.” The teacher of the freshmen Republicans became their taskmaster. He told Elizabeth Drew that his model was Sergeant Stryker, the John Wayne character in Sands of Iwo Jima who must be hard on his troops so they will perform well in battle.2 He made frequent use of the Engler Paradigm—citing the bad polls Governor John Engler of Michigan suffered when he cut benefits in Michigan, only to bounce back higher than ever when economic gains were registered. Gingrich said bad polls were expectable—he had predicted them. But the Contract was what mattered with people. If that were just passed, or most of it, the people would give their admiring support.

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.

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.

  1. 1

    Ms. Clinton’s approval rate was 38 percent, Gingrich’s 22 percent. Bill Clinton’s approval rate more than doubled Gingrich’s (51 percent to 22). Data taken from three polls reported in USA Today, April 15, 1996.

  2. 2

    Gingrich told Drew that Sands of Iwo Jima was “the formative movie of my life”—an important accolade, given the man’s tendency to do all his thinking in terms of movies. He regularly used films to teach history in his seminars, and discussed budget strategy with Bob Dole by saying President Clinton was acting like a character in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Everyone heard how Gingrich’s policy for troubled children was formed out of Boys’ Town. Ronald Reagan, who was often accused of confusing reality and cinema, was formed by church and sports activities before, as an adult, entering the world of movies. Movies entered Gingrich when he was a lonely and peripatetic child living vicariously in the plots of his favorite pictures. Even marrying his high-school teacher was a way of leaping directly into the adult world of the movie screen.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  • Email
  • Print