The Gingrich Revolution and the Roots of Republican Dysfunction

Republicans are now searching for a new leader, but personality and charisma will not heal this deep divide between politics and governance that has plagued the party for more than two decades. It may be the greatest unintended consequence of the Gingrich revolution.
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A coalition of roughly 40 Republican lawmakers, who refer to themselves as the "Freedom Caucus," recently forced John Boehner to step down as House Speaker. Now they are holding the party, and the Congress, hostage by demanding fidelity to their hard-core conservative agenda. Its more than issues that separate them from their colleagues. They view politics through the prism of morality. They see politics as a battleground between good and evil; a place where compromise and negotiation are signs of weakness. It's a political style that demonizes opponents and is infused with a sense of moral self-righteousness.

The person most responsible for injecting that virulent strain of partisanship into the Republican party was another dethroned House Speaker -- Newt Gingrich. The firebrand conservative leaders today are Gingrich's children. Gingrich rose to power in the 1980s as the pied piper of a new assertive conservatism that merged the moralistic rhetoric of the New Right, and the mystical conservative faith in tax cuts, into a powerful ideological message. It was Gingrich who manufactured the hyper-partisanship that defines modern politics.

Gingrich literally created the vocabulary of modern conservatism. During the 1980s, he hired marketing professionals to identify issues, "65 percenters," that would resonate with a majority of the public. He then turned to a political action committee, GOPAC, to create tapes that were distributed to aspiring Republican candidates. The tapes developed a vocabulary of positive words (magnets) to use to describe Republican initiatives -- liberty, freedom, truth, opportunity -- while using "bad" words (wedges) to label the Democrats -- decay, corrupt, permissive, and pathetic. The tapes taught an entire generation of young, combative Republicans to speak "Gingrich."

The "wedges" and "magnets" would find their way into the 1994 "Contract with America" -- perhaps Gingrich's greatest political achievement. The contract turned Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local" on its head. Instead, Gingrich nationalized 435 local races, turning them into a referendum on President Bill Clinton. Using GOPAC as a recruitment and training organization, Gingrich spent more than $8 million identifying the strongest potential Republican challengers and providing them with the themes, the "wedges and magnets," to use against their Democratic opponents. Every month, GOPAC sent tapes to Republican candidates with ideas, tips, and advice from Gingrich.

Gingrich's strategy succeeded brilliantly. Not a single Republican incumbent for Congress or governor was defeated. Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In Senate races, they won all nine open elections and defeated two incumbent Democrats. Republicans also scored well in the states, where they controlled the governor's mansions in eight of the nine most populous states.

The new freshmen were "Gingrich's children," and they reflected his combative style of politics. They were young -- over half were under the age of 45. They viewed themselves as outsiders, not professional politicians. Since they all won election in 1994 campaigning on the same platform of balancing the budget, reforming welfare, and cutting taxes, they were convinced they had a mandate to change the way politics was practiced in Washington. They were going to force change, not make deals.

On election night, Gingrich sat in his Atlanta headquarters waiting for the results. "How are we doing?" he asked one of his advisors. "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" the advisor responded. "Both," Gingrich said. "The good news is that we are going to pick up a lot of seats." Gingrich then asked for the bad news. "Wait until you meet them," the advisor responded. "You won't believe what a bunch of ideologues you are going to have to deal with," he said, predicting: "They are going to kill you."

As many of Gingrich's children would soon discover, their leader was more complicated, and his approach to politics more nuanced than his bombastic rhetoric would suggest. On substantive issues of policy, Gingrich was often creative, thoughtful, and intellectually independent, capable of challenging the conventional wisdom of his own party. At the same time, however, he could be ruthlessly partisan. Gingrich make a distinction between politics -- the sometimes inflammatory words you have to say to win elections -- and governance -- the responsible steps that elected officials need to take to solve problems. He could arouse the Republican faithful by framing issues as choices between good and evil. Yet, Gingrich never fully believed his own rhetoric. Intellectually, he understood that policies are often negotiated in the grey area between ideological extremes.

Through the sheer force of his personality, Gingrich would project this internal conflict onto the national party. They have been wrestling with it ever since.

Unfortunately for him, an entire generation of Republicans have come to power adopting his strategy and his message, but failing to appreciate the distinction between means and ends. Today's "Freedom Caucus" has embraced Gingrich's strident political style, but they lack his appreciation of the art of governance. They seem nostalgic about the Gingrich-led government shutdowns in his first year as Speaker, but they forget that after initially overreaching, Gingrich worked closely with Clinton on a number of important legislative achievements, including a balanced budget bill and legislation to reform welfare. In the months before the Clinton impeachment, the Speaker was meeting secretly with the President plotting to create a new bipartisan coalition to reform Social Security and Medicare.

Gingrich's willingness to work with Clinton outraged conservatives -- many of whom he had helped elect -- who attacked him for making deals with the devil. After an abortive coup, they eventually forced him out of office. Boehner, although more cautious than Gingrich and less eager to make negotiate with President Obama, has suffered a similar fate. Republicans are now searching for a new leader, but personality and charisma will not heal this deep divide between politics and governance that has plagued the party for more than two decades. It may be the greatest unintended consequence of the Gingrich revolution.

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