What Democrats can learn from Newt Gingrich, the man who broke politics
Nearly a month after 2018’s nominal election day, the last votes have been tallied in the last swing district in the United States. A Democratic defeat of a Republican incumbent in California’s Central Valley has given the blue party wave a cumulative gain of 40 seats in the House of Representatives, adding to the majority it had seized back on 6 November.
In addition, the American public’s rebuke of an unpopular president two years into his first term has supplied a piquant historical analogy, one that the Democratic party ought to be studying and heeding. In November 1994, it was Republican insurgents led by Representative Newt Gingrich who delivered the stunning upset, capturing control of both the House and Senate from President Bill Clinton’s party.
Gingrich’s performance in the months before and the year after his ascent to speaker of the House and de facto leader of the national Republican party offers two vital lessons for today’s Democrats – one salutary, and the other cautionary.
Admittedly, by the standards of Newt Gingrich in 2018, as an adviser to President Trump and a freelance blowhard, it can be hard to conceive that he has anything worthwhile to teach Democrats, whether of the progressive or centrist sort. These days, Gingrich has been widely and not incorrectly reviled as “the man who broke politics”, as a recent Atlantic article put it, with his ferociously partisan style.
Yet the Gingrich who masterminded the Republicans’ 1994 triumph came equipped with ideas and a program. He called it the Contract With America, and it consisted of 10 pieces of proposed legislation, all of which had tested well in focus groups. The topics ranged from child tax credits to tort reform to work requirements for welfare recipients, and even constitutional amendments on congressional term limits and a presidential line-item veto over the federal budget.
About six weeks before the 1994 midterms, Gingrich unveiled the contract at a rally outside the Capitol, where the legislative package was endorsed by 367 Republican candidates for Congress. Even before the election, Gingrich had succeeded in pushing Clinton rightward to collaborate on a harsh anti-crime bill. And when the voters delivered their verdict in November, Gingrich had orchestrated a 54-seat GOP gain in the House and a nine-seat pick-up in the Senate. Republicans held both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1953–55.
His bomb-throwing image notwithstanding, Gingrich delivered his first address as speaker in January 1995 with both erudition and generosity. He likened his impending push for legislation to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days, the birth of the New Deal. He saluted Democratic liberals for having led the nation forward on civil rights.
Over the next several months, Gingrich pushed through all but one item on his 10-point program, and many of the measures passed with substantial Democratic support. It is true that most faltered in the Senate or were vetoed by Clinton, but the effect was still palpable – in the pre-election crime bill, in the welfare-reform law ultimately signed in 1996, in Clinton’s concession in his 1996 State of the Union address that “the era of big government is over”.
It is already too late for 2018 Democrats to have run their campaigns on a consensus platform along the lines of the Contract With America. But there is still time, before the new Congress is seated in January, to identify a series of popular liberal bills to be rapidly approved.
Such a list could well include solidifying the guarantee of health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions; repairing public infrastructure through federal spending rather than Trump’s scheme of privatization; providing permanent legal residence as a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers; and making public college, including two-year community colleges, tuition-free.
Realistically, few if any of these bills would survive the Republican Senate and the president’s veto power to become law. But passage of an optimistic, humane, forward-looking
agenda by the House would show the public, especially the pivotal independent voters, that Democrats can and will do more than investigate Trump’s alleged crimes, including illegally coordinating with a foreign power and widespread obstruction of justice. In the process, it would become manifestly clear that the Republican party and its authoritarian president are the obstructionists standing in the way of responsible, useful government action.
At the same time, however, Democrats must keep reminding themselves of how quickly Newt Gingrich undermined his own program and his own power.
His ego swollen by his initial successes as speaker, Gingrich forced a government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996 over a budget dispute with Clinton. Suddenly, the image of the Republican majority was of gates closed to national parks, right on the cusp of Christmas vacation for millions of American families. Gingrich’s poll numbers, which had been narrowly positive right after the 1994 election, plummeted by the end of 1995. Clinton’s, meanwhile, were buoyed back up above 50%.
Clinton won re-election by a landslide in 1996, and though the Republicans held their Congressional majority that year and again in 1998, they performed far below the norm for an opposition party in a midterm campaign. The obvious parallel here for Democrats would be to politically overreach by going beyond the legitimate investigations of presidential malfeasance – in the form of Russian collusion, foreign money-laundering, and self-dealing through Trump Organization properties – and pursue an impeachment effort destined to fail in the Senate and likely to harden support for Trump.
Come to think of it, Gingrich made precisely that mistake in 1998, when he brought impeachment proceedings against Clinton for having perjured himself in testimony about his sexual affairs. Clinton’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” – lying under oath about his sexual affairs – look utterly pedestrian next to Trump’s probable treason and corruption. But a broader lesson does apply. Deservedly or not, the accused Clinton came off as the persecuted party. And the progress of the Contract With America in reorienting America’s political direction was halted by Gingrich’s own hubris. Even a large wave, it turns out, can wash back out to sea.
Samuel G Freedman, an occasional contributor to the Guardian, is a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of eight books.
The Gingrich who masterminded the Republicans’ 1994 triumph came equipped with ideas and a program
Newt Gingrich. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP