On Gingrichism

The conventional wisdom among those who identify themselves as “progressives,” “liberals” or simply “conservative Democrats” is that something has gone profoundly wrong with America.

Their attention is riveted on religious fundamentalists who are at odds with evolution, social conservatives worried about abortion and homosexuality, fiscal radicals trying to roll back the welfare state, global warriors determined to impose freedom on around the world and, of course, the arch-demon, political operative Karl Rove. It may be that this is the direction in which history is headed.

There is, however, an alternative interpretation.  It is that the mainstream tradition of American politics is currently engaged in battle with a determined insurgency, a movement associated chiefly with former Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich and broadly described by the set of ideas in his “contract with America.”

It may be that Gingrichism is about to lose its decisive battle, the assault on the Social Security System.

It was only five years ago, after all, that Bill Clinton was once again riding high as president, having survived an impeachment trial. At least one liberal successor is in the wings — none other than New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Her presidential candidacy would be a very long-shot if it were not for the two-term presidency of George W. Bush.

But if a son can succeed his father, surely a wife can succeed her husband — especially one as thoroughly and carefully differentiated from her errant husband as Mrs. Clinton will be by the autumn of 2008. A Democrat in the White House in 2009 would lead historians back to 1980 as the only real watershed in recent American political and economic history — 1994 and 2000 would have to be discarded.

So, in the meantime, every attempt should be made to understand the wellsprings of the Bush agenda. In his State of the Union Address, he recommended The Case For Democracy, by former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky. But he told The New York times earlier this month that his bedtime reading was I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe’s new novel about the vertigo a bright country girl suffers when she enrolls in a prestigious university. The choice reveals Bush as his friends describe him — an involved parent, a good husband, a close student (like the author) of the politics of class and culture, but hardly more interested in programs than Tom Wolfe himself.

So where does George Bush get his ideas? His foreign policy, presumably, has been either instinctive or else learned at home. American presidents have been reacting pre-emptively to perceived threats to national security since Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 in order to get rid of the French, And in 1990, Bush himself was a trouble-shooter for his father during the Persian Gulf War, when the Americans evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait but stopped short of occupying Baghdad. So far, Bush’s foreign policy must be judged a political success. He got re-elected, after all. The elections in Afghanistan and Iraq have been at least mildly encouraging.

The war’s costs have yet to be gauged — the extent to which the American Army has been overextended, the ways in which the situations in Iran and North Korea have deteriorated, the exacerbation of relations with Europe. But American presidents for many years to come will exercise Bush’s doctrine of global pre-emptive engagement, however boldly or cautiously.

Domestic policy is another matter. As a two-term governor of Texas, Bush revealed little interest in the kinds of sweeping initiatives he has undertaken since taking office — massive tax cuts, Social Security “personalization” and the extension of Medicare benefits. Where did those ideas come from?

In The Enduring Revolution: How The Contract With America Continues To Shape The Nation, Fox News correspondent Major Garrett argues that the framework of nearly all of Bush’s domestic agenda was established by Newt Gingrich — not just the three tax cuts passed in his first three years in office, “but Bush policy on education, welfare, health care, the environment, energy, Medicare, Social Security, defense, intelligence, crime, abortion, agriculture, regulation and space exploration.”

Garrett’s book is a blow-by-blow account of the development of Gingrich and his ideas. It makes an absorbing story. It was Gingrich who, as a freshman Congressman from Georgia, arranged the “Capitol steps event,” a famous photo opportunity with which Republicans kicked off their campaign in the autumn of 1980 — presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan, vice-presidential candidate George Bush and 150 Republican congressmen who signed a five-fold “pledge” to limit the growth of government

Dick Cheney’s decision in 1989 to leave Congress to serve as Defense Secretary in the administration of George H.W. Bush opened the way for Gingrich to replace him as Republican minority whip in the House of Representatives, second to minority leader Bob Michel of Illinois. Three years later, Gingrich’s disaffection with Bush for having raised taxes on the eve of the Gulf War split the Republican Party and helped put Bill Clinton in the White House minority (with a strong assist from independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who garnered 19 percent of the vote).

It was with his “Contract with America” in 1994 that Gingich had his greatest triumph. The ten-point program included Congressional term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, tax cuts, less red tape, raised limits on senior citizens’ earnings, legal reforms, welfare reforms, a strong defense plank, anti-crime provisions and child-protection measures, including education reform. Aided by the Clinton administration’s over-reaching attempt to reform health care, the strategy worked brilliantly to turn the mid-term election into a national referendum.  The Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years.  And in 1995, Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The triumph didn’t last. A series of legislative battles culminated in a pair of Congressional decisions to “shut down the government” through the appropriations process, and by the end of the year, President Clinton had decisively bested Gingrich at the game of politics. Gingrich blamed Republican Sen. Bob Dole, a thoroughly mainstream figure, for failing to back him in a decisive moment in the budget battles. And after Clinton defeated Dole in the presidential campaign of 1996, Gingrich launched a campaign to unseat the President. Impeachment succeeded in the House but conviction ultimately failed in the Senate, not long after the Republicans lost five seats in the House in the mid-term election of 1998, rather than gaining the twenty-five or thirty seats that leadership had expected, Gingrich lost his party’s backing as Speaker and resigned from Congress.

Gingrich’s own book new book, Winning the Future, is rapidly fading in bookstores, dealing yet another blow to his hopes to become the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in 2008.  Garrett’s book suggests why. The Enduring Revolution makes no mention of the former Speaker’s marital shenanigans over the years, including the affair with a staffer that unfolded throughout the period in which he was leading the drive to impeach Clinton for the same offense. According to Garret, a true believer, zealous Republicans removed Gingrich because he voted to boost intelligence spending in 1998.

Garrett is right about this much, however. It is the tenets of Gingrichism that have been taken over almost without exception by George Bush.  They will rise or fall together. It is instructive to compare the various initiatives that the president has presented to the Congress with the five tenets of the 1980 “pledge” by Ronald Reagan. They included reductions in the money Congress spends on itself, in order to set a better example; selective cuts in government spending to reduce waste, fraud and abuse; across-the-board cuts in income taxes in hopes of furthering economic growth; efforts to encourage more private investment for the same reason; and stepped up military spending.

That is the point of view that carried the day a quarter-century ago, and that has defined more or less the center of mainstream ever since. The Gingrich insurgency is all about the conviction that Reagan didn’t go far enough.  The extent to which George W. Bush subscribed to Gingrinchism wasn’t widely understood in when he was first elected n 2000. It wasn’t the issue when he was re-elected last year.

It is now.