What Democrats can learn from Newt Gin­grich, the man who broke pol­i­tics

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Sa­muel G Freedman

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.