The Long March of Newt Gingrich
Vin Weber
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Q: What's the political philosophy that brings you together--the Conservative Opportunity Society?

Weber: I think that's pretty important. There's a philosophy, but not a rigid, narrow, almost theological conservatism. There is certainly a conservatism. [But it's], in some ways, broader than the conservatism of the past generations of Goldwater, not to denigrate that at all though. It's a little different.

But the most important thing is to understand then, as now, that twelve, thirteen year ago, Newt Gingrich understood and argued that the Republican Party could not simply be against. They had to replace what existed with something new. For a long time, nobody paid much attention to it. Or they might have laughed at it, called us the Conservative Opportunists Society, things like that. But it was a tremendously important notion. He thought it through and we discussed it. Words were chosen fairly carefully even before the program was fully developed.

In fact, the program is not fully developed today. But his notion was that what we had in this country can be called a Liberal Welfare State. People think of that as a term of denigration. That wasn't always a term of denigration. If you describe something as a Liberal Welfare State, thirty or forty years ago people would have been proud to say that's exactly what we're trying to build here. It contrasts with an authoritarian state. It contrasts with the Darwinian free enterprise, laissez-faire. Liberal Welfare State was a positive idea.

It's a sign of the times how much that has become pejorative. His argument was that we need to talk about replacing the Liberal Welfare State with something. It's going to be, number one, conservative, based on conservative principles rather than liberal principles of free markets, individual freedom, decentralization. [They are] a whole range of ideas that are conservative in opposition to what we have come to think of in twentieth century America as Liberal.

[It's] opportunity as opposed to welfare; welfare being, in our view, synonymous with a dependency society. What we talked about doing was replacing that with a society that would actually give people opportunities to become independent. Society, as opposed to state, recognizing that the dominant form of our culture is not governmental and that the most important centers of activity in society, if you will, are families, non-profit organizations and neighborhoods. The grand ascent of the state has been an abnormality, a move away from the norm. Granted, for all of us, it's dominated our lifetimes. But that doesn't mean that it has dominated the history of this country or much of the world. We're going to get, in some ways, back to and ahead of this period when we were dominated by a Liberal Welfare State. So, the Conservative Opportunity Society was a fairly carefully thought-out construct. I argue, even today as we're sitting here, the main challenge to the Republican Party and the conservative movement is to think through what replaces welfare state policies as opposed to simply editing them, defunding them and tearing them down.

Some things can probably be abolished and never be missed. The public expects government to respond to a lot of different problems like education, poverty, problems of the inner city and [to] figure out exactly how to approach those. It remains our major challenge. You can really say that the one person who's been saying for a long time, fifteen years or more, that that's what we had to be thinking about was Newt Gingrich.

Q: Now tell me a little about the tactics, the strategy. Newt as a kind of a General.

Weber: I think that the military analogies are pretty helpful in understanding Newt Gingrich. He wasn't a military person himself but he grew up in a military family. [He] studied a lot of military history and has studied the military both as a partial vocation and as a serious advocation. I don't know if he still does, but he always used to lecture at the War College. He thought of it as one of his most interesting volunteer assignments. He occasionally went on the maneuvers with the Navy to see what they're doing. Figuring out how that affects his thinking is important. And he certainly thinks of himself as a general. There's no question about that.

In terms of the strategy that we employed, I think one of the most helpful things to think about is that he had a construct and we really developed it. We needed to develop as a party - wedge issues and magnet issues. It's a fairly simple notion with wedge issues, or ideas that really separated the Democratic majority from the public, issues where they were plainly wrong and the public did not support them. But they were, for a variety of reasons, not paying a political price. In those cases our assignment was to find ways of making clear the differences between the Democratic Party and the public on those issues driving a wedge between the Democrats and their constituencies.

The Balanced Budget constitutional amendment was one of those. Voluntary school prayer was another. With both of those issues, seventy to eighty per cent of the public said they were in favor of the constitutional amendments. Democrats not only opposed them but used their power in the Congress to prevent them from coming for vote. For a long, long time there were no votes on either of those constitutional amendments. So that's exactly the sort of thing we were arguing. If they could be forced to make those positions clearly known to their voters, they'd pay a political price. There's a whole range of issues like that.

The magnet issues really relate to this concept of a Conservative Opportunity Society -- always understanding that you can't just win by being negative. Ultimately there has to be a positive set of issues that attract people to the Republican Party, issues for which they feel confident voting for. That part of the message was lost early on because the press and our opposition, of course, only focused on confrontational tactics that we employed in the House, tactics that deserved a lot of attention. But it did obscure for many years people's vision when it came to understanding what Newt Gingrich was all about. They laughed at the notion that there even was a positive side to this movement. In fact, it really was much more than simply bashing the Democrats on a few key issues. I think people now understand that. For many years people in his own party didn't really understand that.


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