The Spectacle Blog

Bill Clinton of the Right With Half the Charm and Twice the Abrasiveness

By on 1.20.12 | 9:49AM

That's what I wrote about Newt Gingrich several months ago.  It refers to their lack of discipline, their amoral ruthlessness in politics, their grandiosity, their verbal dexterity and equal dexterity with the truth, and all sorts of other character traits. It remains true now. Jenny Sanford sees part of it. Fiscal conservative stalwarts Jeff Flake and Jason Chaffetz describe another part of it. Yes, Marianne Gingrich saw lots of it, too, but it wasn't the sex part that was important, but his turning on conservatives, his"melting" around Clinton, his megalomania and psychological oddnesses, and other policy- and leadership-related things she described to Esquire that are the important factors -- and these are issues or themes where it's not just a he-said/she-said thing, but instead ones amply supported by solid conservatives such as Tom Coburn, Dick Armey multiple times (by the way, Marianne Gingrich reportedly has also told people the same story about Newt being called to the White House one day and then coming back completely changed about Clinton and all chummy with him), William Bennett and George Will, Jim Talent, and many other solid conservatives.

Meanwhile, Gingrich consistently claims far too much credit for conservative successes, especially in the Reagan years. As Mitt Romney noted in the debate last night, Reagan barely knew who Gingrich was. He was a back bencher.

The joke going around in the late 1980s was that the NRCC had a whole room full of file Cabinets, with every drawer in the room labeled "Newt's ideas." Well, every drawer but one. The drawer in the bottom corner of the dingiest file Cabinet was labeled "Newt's good ideas."

As for his role in gaining the majority for the GOP in 1994, it was of course significant. I was there; I will always credit him for that. Alas, he claims TOO much credit. The Contract with America, for instance, was more the brainchild of Kerry Knott (Armey's aide, who came up with the first version of it while on a weekend clear-his-mind getaway at Morton Blackwell's country house) than anybody else. The insistence on passing welfare reform (rather than giving up on it after two vetoes and using it as a campaign issue instead) came from the bottom up, with folks like Santorum, John Kasich, Bill Archer, and Clay Shaw deserving more of the credit than Gingrich.
As for Appropriations, Bob Livingston went beyond what Newt even asked in pursuit of a balanced budget, and so did Kasich. But Gingrich almost ruined the whole thing by agreeing with Bill Thomas to include an unnecessary Medicare provision into the "shutdown" battle, thus giving fodder to Clinton and muddying the waters. Gingrich's foot-in-mouth-itis clearly helped cost conservatives both in the PR department and in the 1996 presidential race; his conduct of the impeachment inquiry turned it, politically, into a major met minus instead of the net plus it should have been; and his utter capitulation on spending in the fall of 1998 (in order to buy off moderates for what turned out to be irrelevant demands for the actual shape of the impeachment inquiry) blew the lid off the spending progress made in the previous three years and set the scene for the Bush spendathon.

But here's the question: If Gingrich is afforded so much credit for the House takeover in 1994, why shouldn't John Boehner claim the credit for the House takeover in 2010? After all, the GOP made a much higher net gain of seats in 2010 than in 1994. (I'm not saying Boehner should get the lion's share of the credit; my point is that there's no reason for Gingrich to get more of it than Boehner does, for a lesser numerical triumph.) Rick Santorum was absolutely right that the House Bank scandal and other scandals (House Post Office, etc.) did at least as much to help the GOP take over in 1994 as the Contract with America or other semi-Gingrichian plans did (most of the public didn't hear of the Contract until after the election) -- and it was the Gang of Seven, led by Boehner and Santorum, who exposed the Bank scandal. Yes, Gingrich did help with that, but since he himself had effectively kited 22 checks, including to the IRS, his role was diminished. Indeed, it was largely due to that scandal that Gingrich himself came within less than 1,000 votes of losing his own House seat. People forget how potent an issue that was, but it was immense.

The truth was that while the triumph in 1994 was a huge shock to the pundits, it was eminently predictable, because the ground was set via redistricting, the Bank Scandal, and other trends. How can I say it was predictable? Because two weeks after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, with Republicans also having been shellacked for the House and Senate and collectively stumbling around like a whipped puppy, I wrote a memo (I still have it) explaining why the GOP was more likely than not to finally gain the majority two years from then in 1994, and why Gingrich would be the likely first choice for Speaker -- and why he wouldn't last, because he was too volatile, unreliable, etcetera.

Gingrich was great at rabble rousing. He was awful at actually managing things. That's why, again, in the single campaign where he was clearly, unambiguously unchallenged as the architect of national GOP campaign strategy, in 1998, he took a lay of the land that virtually every pundit in the land thought would create at least a 15-seat Republican net gain in the House (Gingrich himself predicted as much as a 30-seat gain), and turned it into a five-seat loss that came within a hair's breadth in about four races of blowing the entire House majority.

Meanwhile, how can people say he has "changed" or "grown" or "matured"? It was less than a year ago that he was trashing Paul Ryan's budget as "right-wing social engineering." It was as recently as 2010 that he was still endorsing a version of the individual health-care mandate. It was just last week that he was attacking Bain Capital from an extreme, left-wing position. Sorry, but that ain't maturation -- and it might explain why he took a 20-point lead in Iowa and a tied-for-lead in New Hampshire and, within about three weeks time, turned them into, respectively, fourth- and fifth-place finishes there. Only in his own backyard, in a state (South Carolina) neighboring his longtime Georgia home, could he hope to be competitive. Even if you give him credit for 1994, Gingrich has been involved in just eight heavily contested elections so far (for the House in 1974, 1976, 1978, and 1992, for the national House elections of 1994 and 1998, and for Iowa and New Hampshire this year so far) -- and he has won just three of them. He effectively lost in 1974, 1976, 1998, Iowa, and New Hampshire. And this is the standard bearer who supposedly is going to slay Barack Obama via a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates that of course will never happen anyway?!? I think not.

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