TOPICS > Politics

The State of Newt Gingrich

November 20, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: On Monday morning of this week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and members of his leadership team met to outline a direction for the new 105th Congress.

REP. MICHAEL CRAPO: If you think back two years ago in January, when we started out, there was a dynamic that I think we need to regain, and I call it the fire in the belly, if you will. If I remember the polling accurately, we were never ranked higher than during the 100 days of the Contract with America, when we were going full speed on ideas, and there is a dynamic there that we need to regain.

KWAME HOLMAN: Newt Gingrich sat quietly and listened. There’s a lingering Ethics Committee investigation overshadowing his second term as speaker, and the direction House Republicans will take in the new Congress isn’t as clearly defined as it was two years ago. In January, 1995, Republicans were focused. They had taken control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and chosen Newt Gingrich to lead them. It was Gingrich who had engineered the House takeover. He had called the Democratic majority corrupt and convinced Republican colleagues their minority status was neither permanent nor acceptable. Gingrich recruited an energetic group of House candidates and united them behind the Contract with America. House Republicans emerged from the 1994 midterm elections with a 38-seat majority, but Gingrich’s work had just begun. He almost brazenly promised to bring to a vote all items contained in the Contract with America within 100 days. Welfare reform, product liability reform, tax cuts, a line-item veto, everything but term limits, passed the House with near-unanimous Republican support.

SPOKESMAN: We want you to change “Hail to the Chief” to “Hail to the Speaker.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Gingrich had kept his one hundred-day promise, with eight days to spare. The Republican Revolution was rolling along, and Newt Gingrich was dominating the American political scene.

TONY BLANKLEY, Gingrich Press Secretary: It got the attention. It got a debate started that needed to be started, hasn’t been finished yet.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tony Blankley is Newt Gingrich’s press secretary.

TONY BLANKLEY: But if we’d come in quietly, pleasantly, saying, well, we’re not going to ruffle any feathers, I think that we would have lost the energy that came out of that great election.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the spring of 1995, many saw Newt Gingrich as having surpassed President Clinton both in power and influence. At the least, they believed he was on equal footing. That fed speculation that Gingrich would make his own run for the presidency.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: After we finish reconciliation, we’ll frankly sit down probably during a Thanksgiving break, if there is one, and Mary and I will talk about it.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, on June 30, 1995, came the first indication of trouble ahead. As Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Dole, and the two Republican budget chairmen sat down to sign their seven-year balanced budget plan, Gingrich warned of a government shutdown, a train wreck, he called it, if President Clinton didn’t sign on to their budget plan.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH: And I think that a President suffers far more from a train wreck than the Congress does, and I don’t think–I honestly believe the President does not want a train wreck. Now, again, I think he has very mixed advice about whether or not he should do these things.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the fall of 1995, President Clinton did not sign the Republicans’ budget, and the government did shut down, twice. The polls showed the public blamed not the President but House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich.

TONY BLANKLEY: It was a judgment that, in retrospect, may not have worked. In past times, when Reagan dealt with a Democratic Congress and they would say his budgets were dead on arrival, their ability to force Reagan into accepting budget decisions that he didn’t want, we saw in the eighties the power of Congress, so we thought we might be able to apply it in the nineties in a similar way. As it turned out, we weren’t able to sustain our position long enough.

KWAME HOLMAN: Blankley adds it was that miscalculation in strategy that precipitated the government shutdown, not the much-publicized incident in which Speaker Gingrich complained of being shunned by President Clinton aboard Air Force One.

TONY BLANKLEY: A New York tabloid showed a picture of Newt throwing a temper tantrum as a cartoon, and I think that that stuck for a while and was unfair, but, you know, life is tough sometimes, and that was I think what a lot of people thought was the reason–had nothing to do with the reason, of course.

KWAME HOLMAN: The budget impasse and the resulting government shutdown last winter eventually led to a split between Speaker Gingrich, who wanted to compromise with the President, and some of his House Republican freshmen who didn’t. But Blankley also adds Senate Republicans to that equation.

TONY BLANKLEY: When Sen. Dole decided in the Senate to go ahead and pass a budget that the President would sign or a temporary spending measure the President would sign, about 25 Republicans in the House decided to go along with that. And they told us that they would vote with the Democrats, the strategic decision had been made outside of our control. The only question was how we lived with that decision.

KWAME HOLMAN: By the beginning of 1996, however, Newt Gingrich’s favorable poll ratings had begun to plummet, and so did the number of Gingrich public appearances.

TONY BLANKLEY: He could live with the fact that he wasn’t the most popular man in the country. He would like to have what he thinks and I think would be a more complete view of him than some people had at the time.

KWAME HOLMAN: During the recent congressional elections, Democrats and the AFL-CIO tried to link Gingrich to House Republican candidates, but, at best, that effort succeeded only partially.

TONY BLANKLEY: The idea they spent scores of millions of dollars trying to make every Republican seem as if he was Newt Gingrich, well, they’re not, and the public saw through that.

KWAME HOLMAN: After spending seven years with Newt Gingrich, Tony Blankley is leaving Capitol Hill at the end of this year. As for Gingrich, he returns as Speaker of the House, having achieved the one historic goal he stated when House Republicans nominated him to be Speaker two years ago.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH: That no Republican majority has been re-elected since 1926, and that if we are to break that pattern, having proven we could break the pattern of not being a majority which is a 40-year pattern, we are now faced with a challenge of a rather longer precedent if we are to be worthy of being re-elected in 1996.