With the New Hampshire Union Leader’s endorsement of Newt Gingrich as well as Gingrich’s rise in the polls, the former speaker has the momentum in the race for the White House, but is this a good thing?
Speaker Gingrich has many commendable points. He’s skilled at crafting conservative policy proposals and he is an accomplished debater and proponent of conservative ideas. Gingrich also deserves credit for working with President Clinton to pass welfare reform, and some credit for the balanced budgets that existed prior to 9/11. Conservatives remember Gingrich fondly for leading the GOP to victory with the Contract with America.
However, things did not go so well once Gingrich was in office. His troubled tenure from 1995-99 (which he at one point compared to being prime minister) as well as his post-speakership career raise several red flags that conservatives would be wise to consider:
1) Big Spending and Earmarks:
While Gingrich was speaker, Congress and the president balanced the budget. This did not come about through hard choices, but rather through a booming economy. As the information age dawned and the dotcom boom began, government coffers surged with revenues.
As part of the balanced budget agreement, Congress put in place spending caps. With the surge of revenue, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott decided to break the spending caps that had been put in place in the balanced budget agreement and increased federal spending. This practice was continued under Gingrich’s successor, Dennis Hastert. The predictable result of the Republican Congress’ profligacy on spending was that once the dotcom bubble burst and economic growth slowed, the only way that Congress could afford to continue the increases they’d made in the good years of the economy was to run up deficits.
Gingrich’s speakership was dealt a telling blow as a result of his ineptness in negotiating the FY1999 budget which was passed a month before the 1998 elections and increased spending without delivering any major tax reductions. Then-Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) said voters complained to him that nobody read the bill and “the president (Clinton) got virtually everything he wanted.”
One part of Gingrich’s legacy that remained long after he left was the expanded role of earmarks in congressional politics. Gingrich doubled the number of earmarks in Congress and his office sent out memos encouraging the use of earmarks for protecting vulnerable members of Congress. The number of earmarks would eventually increase to 14,000 per year and would lead to the end of the Republican majority. While the greatest excesses did not occur during Gingrich’s speakership, the first steps toward the Republican train wreck of 2006 were taken during Gingrich’s tenure.
2) Dysfunctional Leadership and Failed Communicator:
If conservatives want lasting victories, they need to survive politically and communicate to the public well. During the government shutdown in 1995-96, Gingrich and the House Republicans failed to formulate an effective response to the Democratic message. Gingrich’s inexplicable statement that President Clinton failed to give him proper seating on Air Force One to a state funeral for Yitzhak Rabin only made the problems worse. Gingrich’s approval rating shrunk to a toxic 20% in the polls as a result of this failure.
Gingrich’s speakership led to a historic lack of confidence from Republican leaders and the rank and file. In 1997, nine Republican members of the House refused to support Gingrich’s re-election to the speakership and the GOP leadership rallied barely enough votes to keep Gingrich in office. In July of that year, Gingrich faced a coup from his top lieutenants that collapsed due to incompetence. After the 1998 elections, Gingrich was forced to step aside.
3) Washington Insider:
Gingrich does not shy away from being a Washington insider. He responded to criticism of his work for Freddie Mac and the Washington insider label by stating that we need to elect someone who knows how Washington works in order to change Washington.
Conservatives have reason to be wary of this idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Gingrich’s flawed record as speaker, suggesting that his success at changing Washington has been slipshod at best, and that his career tendency has been to go along rather than address tough issues when called for.
In an October debate, while Gingrich lauded Herman Cain for proposing his 9-9-9 tax plan, Gingrich cautioned, “Change on this scale takes years to think through if you’re going to do it right.” It’s worth noting that sixteen years ago, Gingrich appointed Cain to Jack Kemp’s tax commission and since then several other tax reform commissions have been appointed. How many more years do we need to “think through” tax reform until we actually do something significant? It is standard Washington tactics to kick big issues down the road for others to deal with, and Gingrich is too big a part of that system to change it.
4) Betraying Conservatives on Key Issues:
Newt Gingrich threw himself into backing liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava while conservatives and tea party groups were rallying around Conservative Doug Hoffman. Gingrich scolded conservative activists for backing Hoffman. Hoffman, for his part, is forgiving of the whole thing and urges Republicans not to hold Gingrich’s action against him. While this is kind of Mr. Hoffman, conservatives would do well to ignore the advice because Gingrich’s belligerent defense of Scozzafava is part of a larger pattern of key betrayals of conservative interests.
While Gingrich was speaker, he and the NRCC were notorious for backing liberal Republicans over conservatives. For example, in 1997, Gingrich recruited liberal state Assemblyman Brook Firestone and supported him over conservative Tom Bordonaro in a special congressional election. Primary voters in the district rejected Firestone as well as Gingrich and company’s attempts to play kingmaker.
In addition to endorsements for liberal Republicans, Gingrich has been more than willing to endorse liberal causes. Among examples of this are the famous ad of him sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi calling for government action to address climate change and his letter in support of Bush’s immigration reform, which many conservatives labeled amnesty. When Gingrich opposes conservatives, he tends to do it in a very dramatic way that’s very belligerent to conservatives who disagree with him.
Conservatives betting on Gingrich have to hope that something has changed Gingrich over the past thirteen years that will transform him into someone who can not only talk about conservative ideas, but can implement conservative solutions. Given the totality of the Gingrich record, this is a bad bet.