Political portrait of a conservative politician: Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland on February 27, 2015. by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
Newt Gingrich speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland on February 27, 2015. by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

“ It is impossible to maintain civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, with 15-year-olds killing each other, with 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and with 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t read.” This campaign statement best reflects Gingrich’s political style: very conservative and moralistic. According to James Ceaser’s typology of conservatism, there are four heads within this movement: libertarianism, neo-conservatism, religious right and traditionalism. We shall see that Newt Gingrich uses elements from these different brands. But he is also very combative, as this 1994 statement illustrates: “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”  His strong character explains that he is a controversial figure, loved as much as hated, sometimes even called “Newtzilla”: there is no consensus on the way he plays the political game. In 1995, Time magazine named him “man of the year”, after having described him as “mad as hell” in 1994. How did Time move from “Mad as hell” to “Man of the year”? What does New Gingrich’s rise and fall story reveal about the American conservative movement?

« Man of the year »:  the birth of a maverick

Indeed, « Newtzilla » had reached the peak of his political career. It all started when he was first elected in 1978, after two unsuccessful tries. He would later be re-elected ten times, and this would make him one of the most influential members of the Republican Party. Indeed, in 1983 he created the Conservative Opportunity Society, acknowledged for its weight in Ronald Reagan’s policy-making during the so-called « Conservative Revolution ».

Gingrich would become one of the most prominent figures in the House, known for his charisma and his combativeness. For instance, denouncing cases of corruption in the Democrats’ ranks, through the House banking scandal in 1992 and the Congressional Post Office scandal between 1991 and 1995, would make him one of their fiercest adversaries. Gingrich used the creation of C-SPAN (1979) and the live coverage of Congress it created to his advantage: he famously lead the charge against Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright regarding the violation of campaign financing rules in 1988 . Wright was eventually forced out of the House, and Gingrich gained a certain stature among his party.

After Dick Cheney was appointed Secretary of Defense in 1989, Gingrich was elected to take his place as minority Whip. His fame wouldn’t cease to grow with future events: the 1991 Congressional Post Office Scandal and the 1992 House Banking Scandal would give him the stature of a wolf amongst sheep. In the first case, Newt Gingrich denounced a scandal of corruption between the Congressional Post Office and the House of Representatives.

I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.

In the second case, he made the clever move to publicize a scandal in the House, in which more Democrats than Republicans were involved: it was revealed that the House of Representatives had allowed Representatives to overdraw their House checking accounts without a sanction from the bank. Newt Gingrich thus managed to appear as the champion of morality in politics.

 The 1994 mid-term elections were his opportunity to shine: the first two years of the Clinton administration had been full of political disasters. The Whitewater scandal was a big one: a scandal of property investment in which Bill and Hillary Clinton were involved, and illegal contributions to Bill Clinton’s campaign for governor of Arkansas in 1990. Bill Clinton also faced difficulties in the nomination of the United States Attorney General, as the first two women he chose were quickly forced to withdraw due to law infringements, which became known as the Nannygate scandal. Most of all, Clinton had campaigned on a middle-class tax cut, which he abandoned to focus on deficit reduction, therefore raising taxes. This galvanized and united the Republicans in Congress behind Newt Gingrich.

Therefore, along with the Heritage Foundation, a modern and very influential Conservative think-tank, he came up with the « Contract with America ». The pamphlet was based on Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address, and consisted in 10 major reforms the Republicans would put to a vote if they obtained a majority in the House: a balanced budget, an anti-crime package, limiting abortion to teen mothers, provide financial opportunities for families, etc…

Breaking a 40-year long Democratic rule in the House, Gingrich was voted Speaker of the House in 1995. The « Man of the Year » now had the opportunity to implement the Contract. However, this didn’t work too well with president Bill Clinton.

Clinton’s nemesis

A republican majority in both houses of Congress meant less leeway for the Democratic president. This was the start of a 4-year long arm-wrestle with the President over numerous issues, emblematic of a “divided government”. This is not unusual because since 1981, it was always the case apart from 1993 to 1995. The first target was welfare reform, a theme usurpated by Clinton as he had campaigned on the idea to cut welfare. But in the first two years of his presidency, he did not do so and he even raised taxes. So the Republicans managed to regain political control on this issue after having recaptured Congress in 1994. Clinton had promised to amend existing programs by adding work requirements for recipients. However, he vetoed two welfare limitation bills from Congress, the first one implementing a balanced budget but Clinton opposed cuts in Medicare. So Gingrich accused him of not upholding his promise and pushed for the passage of the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996. This law, which had been incorporated in the “Contract with America”, was a major welfare reform. It gave state governments more power over welfare delivery and replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program by the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), putting time limits on welfare assistance.

But it wasn’t over yet, as Gingrich had also promised a balanced budget and taxpayer relief, which he obtained in 1997, starting with the Taxpayer Relief Act, which reduced taxes on capital, estate but also on investment gains, which meant more support from an overtaxed middle-class. Gingrich and his party had also promised a balanced budget, a promise they would not let go of as it meant committing to their values. They provoked two government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, after rejecting an initial budget proposal by the Clinton administration in 1993. Clinton’s plans for Medicare conflicted with the Republicans’ promise, as he would have to commit to seven years of balanced budget, making it harder to issue health, safety or environmental regulations. Clinton also claimed the Republican amendments would prevent the federal government from dipping into its trust funds to avoid a borrowing crisis.

In the end however, Democrats and Republicans successfully worked out a compromise, leading Clinton to sign the budget legislation in August 1997 and submit a balanced budget in 1999—the first balanced budget since 1969: the Republicans had won, aided by high economic growth and employment in the second half of the 1990s. However, these government shutdowns would initiate a period of decline in Gingrich’s public image and political support

Indeed, Newt Gingrich was increasingly criticized, even within his own party: from being the “Man of the Year” to a swift and dramatic downfall.

The story behind this title is a quite sorry one, as it would initiate Newt’s fall. On the way to the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Air Force One denied Gingrich a front seat. The link between this event and the 1995 government shutdown was quickly pointed out, and Gingrich even had the privilege of making the Daily News front page as a « Cry Baby ». Even though he denied the shutdown had anything to do with it, he had painted his own portrait: the portrait of a stubborn, proud and foolish man. He himself had tarnished his image in the eye of the public and within his own party. Instead of finding a compromise and trying to cut spending, Gingrich was blamed for only trying to shut down the government: it contrasted with Clinton’s strategy, who advocated  triangulation to upset established political battle lines.

Later on, the Speaker faced another scandal. In 1997, he was accused of having used tax-exempt money to fund a course he taught in 1995, and lying to the Ethics Committee about his doings. Of the 84 ethics charges he faced during his speakership, this one would single-handedly take him down. The House reprimanded him 395 votes against 28, demonstrating ambitious Republicans’ desire to take him down, and he was ordered to reimburse $300,000 in investigation costs.

The Lewinsky scandal, starting in 1998, would lead to Gingrich’s resignation in 1999. The aggressive charge the Republicans had led to impeach Clinton created a severe backlash: in trying to take down the president, they’d been extremely harsh on him. Public opinion thought they’d gone too far. Adding to all he’d done previously, this led to Gingrich resigning. However, the former congressman wouldn’t leave the spotlight. He remained an active political commentator following his resignation, making frequent appearances on Fox News.

Persona non grata & controversial figure

As a traditionalist and a Christian, Newt Gingrich has always been a fierce opponent to the « secularization » of America. Due to his religious beliefs and his affiliation to the religious right, Gingrich strongly opposed gay marriage and attacked Clinton vociferously when the Lewinsky affair broke out. However, contradictory to the self-righteous religious dogma he preached, he himself cheated on and divorced his first two wives—the second of whom, he ironically cheated on during the Lewinsky case. Conservative journalist Jennifer Rubin even awarded him the medal of hypocrisy, claiming “Gingrich’s serial adultery and his current hypocrisy suggest not a immoral man, but an amoral one. Rules, shame, punishment, consistency and transparency are abstractions for him.” Furthermore, his changed views towards gay marriage, as he no longer fully opposed it in 2013, came as a surprise to his supporters. Time after time, Gingrich would portrait himself as someone with little to no ideological dedication, upholding values he himself didn’t practice. As a man who promoted traditionalism and culture within the conservative movement – in other words, the defense of his perception of American culture and values- public opinion would increasingly consider him a cheat, an unreliable and opportunistic leader.

The image he’d built for himself would later be refurnished. After the 2008 crisis and since the beginning of the Obama administration, Gingrich has been calling for the arrest of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2014. Gingrich held Bernanke responsible for the crisis the way it unfolded.. However, it would seem as though Gingrich made a small profit of the crisis. His investments in Freddie Mac, the home loan mortgage company partly responsible for the 2008 subprime crisis, are told to have brought him $1.6 million in royalties. Mitt Romney would not omit reminding him so during the 2012 race for the Republican nomination, an act that would prove Gingrich’s dishonesty when he needed credibility the most. Romney, who hadn’t had the opportunity to prove incompetence at nationwide level, seemed more honest and moderate, but also less controversial.

Last but not least, during his speech at the Freedom Summit, where several conservative figureheads expressed their main ideas for the upcoming presidential election, on January 24th, 2015, Newt Gingrich drew a clear line between Muslims who want to impose sharia law and those who want to live in peace and diversity, stating he had no problem with the latter. He embodies a certain type of conservatism, close to the neoconservative “hawks”, who advocate hard power to fight against foreign threats. Nonetheless, the PhD in History has always been a fervent supporter of Israel and Benyamin Netanyahu. In that respect he strongly believes the war Israel is leading against Palestine can be justified by the fact Palestinians are an « invented population », not by Israel’s expantionist prospects, mostly made up of terrorists aiming to destroy Israel, as he said in an interview with The Jewish Channel back in 2011.

The American press is very active when it comes to talk about « Newtzilla » Gingrich. The New Yorker  published a 2011 article entitled “What is the nicest thing you can think of to say about Newt Gingrich?”. The ironical tone of the article would be emphasized by some of the propositions brought on: “He’s the one to get Obama reelected”, “He’s never divorced me”, or “He hasn’t shut the government down in years.”

Despite his being a controversial figure, Gingrich has reached a certain status of popularity, which has inscribed him as one of the most prominent and influential conservative American politicians of the late 20th-early 21st centuries.

…Who has acquired a certain number of supporters:

In spite of his gaffes and political dogmatism, Newt Gingrich has always had his  share of supporters: according to a McClatchy-Marist Poll released on November 2011 , Newt was the strongest Republican candidate when matched head to head against President Obama.

The historian has always fought for his ideals in a manner conservatives could appreciate, rarely backing down in the face of his opponents, holding up strong arguments in a very combative manner, whether regarding the economy or the environment, always upholding a precise and typical right-wing program, which however wasn’t always as successful as expected. His strong character, his insufficient political results, mainly the shutdowns he provoked, and tainted political career would however keep him down: his image was lost in the public eye. For example, claiming that in order to understand Obama it was necessary to study the decolonization of Kenya proved he went too far in trying to disprove his opponents, and in that regards he didn’t quite master the intricacies of the political process.

To conclude, he is a man at the heart of love and hate stories, one  who courted public support as much as he obtained public disdain. He seems to have risen whilst in the opposition. He led the conservative movement in regaining Congress after 40 years of Democratic majority in the House, and played a major role in opposing Clinton’s agenda. However, when it came to national politics, like the 2012 Republican nomination, his provoking nature was probably to blame for his defeat. He therefore appears as a politician with the personal traits of a strong opposition leader: combativeness and fierce argumentation. His reluctance to compromise combined with a provocative style could explain his failure in national politics. In that way, we could say he is emblematic of a type of American conservatism that seems effective only as an opposition force, but unsustainable when it comes to leading at the national level. Nevertheless, this type of conservatism appears to have found another way to influence national politics and public opinion: the media. Indeed, Fox News, a conservative news channel created in 1996, in which Newt Gingrich has been involved as a consultant and television commentator since his resignation from Congress, shows the strength of American conservatism in public opinion as it is the first cable news network on a national scale in terms of audience, therefore overpassing CNN.

By David Pauget, Aurélien Rougier and Emma Barriquand

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