Column: Newt Gingrich set the tone for today’s politics decades ago
After Newt Gingrich gave a speech in San Diego this week, a member of the public asked him what could be done about “the toxic polarization between left and right.”
The former Speaker of the House pretty much sidestepped the heart of the matter and focused on the questioner’s ancillary concerns about how the political climate in the United States might affect the country’s ability to deal with foreign rivals. .
The Georgia Republican expressed concern if conflict arose in the near future, but said he was optimistic the nation would be fine in the long run.
“We go through cycles like this,” he told a conference on Wednesday of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative-leaning organization that promotes policies that limit government, boost free markets and give more power to states.
What was not part of his response was that a direct line can be drawn from today’s “toxic polarization” to the tactics used by Gingrich to seize power in the 80s and 90s.
Gingrich has had his share of legislative successes, although not everyone agreed with the passage of capital gains tax cuts and welfare reform. But politics is probably not what he will be remembered for. It is the sharp strategies employed by Gingrich – both innovative and confrontational – that have shaped the way political battles have been fought in America since then.
This approach helped him design the Republican takeover of the US House of Representatives in the 1994 election for the first time in 40 years and earned him the post of president. (In the “Life Comes To You Quickly” department: Gingrich resigned his public speaking post four years later under pressure from GOP members over a bad election year and his own ethics scandal.)
To be clear, Gingrich may be the godfather of the Republican political modus operandi, but some of the tactics have been adopted across the spectrum for years.
Gingrich didn’t invent hard partisanship or negative politics, but he took them to a new level. He understood the changes in technology and media and how to exploit them before others.
Gingrich engaged in personal attacks, demonization of opponents, conspiracy theories, media manipulation, and popular sounding proposals that did not always come to fruition. He spoke out against cronyism and corruption in Congress, and not just among Democrats. He promoted the conservative ideology of President Ronald Reagan and put his fangs on it.
These are familiar features of the politics of former President Donald Trump. It is perhaps not surprising that Gingrich, himself a 2012 presidential candidate, was part of Trump’s inner circle during the 2016 campaign. At one point, Trump reportedly spoke with Gingrich about becoming his. running mate.
An article on the Salon’s website titled Gingrich “The Man Who Was Trump Before Trump.”
When a public service cable television operation called C-SPAN was launched in March 1979, Gingrich had been a member of Congress for just over two months. He saw an opportunity that others did not have in C-SPAN which resulted in a camera on the “well” of the House where members give speeches from a pair of lecterns.
Gingrich would come down there and give fiery speeches in a largely empty room at night.
“Initially, Democrats called the coup amateurish and ineffective,” wrote Julian E. Zelizer, professor of political science at Princeton University and author of the book “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.
But Gingrich correctly assumed he could connect with people across the country, who couldn’t see that the chambers in the House were empty. He attacked Democrats by name, which viewers might have thought were there and did not respond. This angered then-President Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., Who wanted to change the rules of the House to allow the camera to move to all vacant seats.
“You have deliberately stood in front of an empty House and challenged these people and challenged their patriotism, and this is the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress,” O’Neill said. .
This confrontation uplifted Gingrich and rallied Republicans around him.
“Gingrich was absolutely delighted. O’Neill had bit the hook, ”Zelizer wrote.
Before Gingrich, members of Congress from both parties often had a pleasant relationship and, despite their differences, regularly drank, dined and played cards together. This does not happen so much these days.
Gingrich’s tactics pushed the boundaries of the standards of the day. Now they are the norm.
Very early on, he also understood the power of another expanding form of communication: talk radio.
Gingrich has allied with Rush Limbaugh, a symbiotic relationship that some analysts say has created the spectacle of modern political commentators. The documentary “Rush Limbaugh’s America” noted that a Limbaugh call to action could result in thousands, if not millions, of people jamming Capitol Hill phone lines. Gingrich began faxing talking points to radio hosts across the country.
“It was like he was calling for airstrikes,” said Zoe Chace of National Public Radio’s “This American Life”.
Gingrich focused on populist issues. As part of the 1994 campaign, he and others came up with the “Contract with America,” a pledge that if Republicans were in power they would cut taxes, reform welfare, cut government. , reduce regulations and demand more transparency from government and Congress.
Gingrich and the Republicans nationalized what had been considered local congressional races with a common ideology.
Gingrich said on Wednesday such a contract was easier to do then than it would be today because most Republicans didn’t really believe they would win a majority in the House and have to follow through. to the proposals. He added that at least a few members who signed the contract later confessed that they disagreed with some of the points.
It was not so much that winning the election was a means of implementing policies as policies were a means of potentially gaining control of the House.
It’s hard to imagine that today’s Congressional Republicans could overcome their divisions to agree on such a document, although it could be a useful contrast to the Democrats, who fought fiercely among themselves for their own program.
Deborah Sullivan Brennan of the San Diego Union-Tribune noted that Gingrich on Wednesday presented a “it doesn’t work” theme for Republicans in next year’s election, which he says will be motivated by concern growing public regarding crime, homelessness, education, gasoline prices and the economy in general.
But he suggested that more is needed.
“What are the corrections? Gingrich asked.