2012 Contender Series: Newt Gingrich
(Updated May 16, 2011. Gingrich has officially declared his candidacy for Republican nomination for President.)
Meet the Newt boss? On Friday, Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House all but formally announced his intentions to run for President in 2012. It has to be pretty serious; Fox News kicked him off of their staff.
Gingrich has a tremendous amount of baggage. To understand the man today, you really need to see where he’s been and how he got here.
In a story reminiscent of more recent scandals, 16-year-old Newt Gingrich fell for his high school geometry teacher, Jackie Battley, who was in her mid-20s. They dated in secret while he was still in high school, and married on June 19, 1962, about a year after he graduated. They quickly had two daughters, and she supported the family while he was in college until he received his PhD. His fatherhood and stay in academia kept him out of the military during the Vietnam War.
Gingrich made multiple attempts at representing Georgia’s sixth congressional district, but was unable to beat the incumbent Democrat, Jack Flynt. Upon Flynt’s announcement of retirement in 1978, Gingrich easily won the seat. He ultimately held a seat in the House for two decades.
In 1980, Newt famously presented Jackie with divorce terms while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery to treat her uterine cancer. Shortly after, Gingrich refused to pay his alimony and child-support payments, leading his hometown First Baptist Church to take up collections to support them. He had been having an affair with Marianne Ginther, the daughter of an Ohio mayor, whom he met at a political fundraiser. They married in 1981, six months after his divorce from Jackie was finalized.
His rise to prominence began with the 1988 campaign he spearheaded to bring down then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), over the use of money from a book deal as a means of bypassing campaign finance laws. Despite the Georgia Congressman being apparently guilty of the same violation himself, Wright resigned, and Gingrich remained.
With the battle freshly won, he determined that this was a means for him to gain notoriety, defeat Democrats, and accumulate power. He took seven 1989 Republican House freshmen under his wing, and started a broader campaign to paint the then nearly sixty-year Democratic majority of the House as corrupt, as a means of replacing them with (theoretically incorruptible) Republican rule. The two most significant elements of the anti-corruption campaign were the 1991 “check-kiting” and 1992 “post office” scandals. [Ed note: Gingrich, himself was involved in the check-kiting scheme including one check of $9,500 to the IRS]
In the former, 22 Representatives, 19 of whom were Democrats, were taking advantage of lax rules in the House checking clearinghouse. In essence, as a job benefit, the House would cover their members’ overdrafts, with the gentlemen’s understanding that the money would be repaid by the overdrawn members. Some members had overdrawn balances for periods in excess of two years. While not illegal, it was certainly distasteful. Twenty of the 22 were defeated in their attempts at reelection in 1992, further cementing in Republicans’ eyes the belief that the road to a successful takeover was paved with claims of corruption.
Meanwhile, Gingrich had a detour. The 1990 census resulted in Georgia gaining a seat, but the Democrats who controlled the state General Assembly gerrymandered his district into pieces, and his home was placed in the territory of an incumbent Democrat, who was expected to win reelection (ironically, he did not). Gingrich moved to Marietta, where he felt he had a better chance at remaining in the House. He nearly lost the primary, but the gamble paid off; he stayed in the House.
It was around this time that he began an affair with Callista Bisek, a Congressional staffer half his age.
The post office investigation lasted for years, and ultimately uncovered genuinely illegal activity, though the details were more difficult to explain to the public. In short, several Representatives were taking funds allocated for business expenses, using them to buy postage stamps, which were then sold back to the post office at face value. The proceeds were then pocketed by the Representative, thus turning the operation into one of money laundering for personal gain. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, a member of the Chicago “machine,” was implicated in the scandal, and became the poster child of Congressional corruption in the 1994 midterm election.
The drumbeat of corruption explained to voters why not to vote for the Democrats, but it did little to explain why voters should want Republicans to replace them. With some help from the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks, Republican leaders drafted the Contract with America, a list of actions they promised to take if they controlled the House. Gingrich spent the summer and fall of 1994 as the voice of House Republicans, touting the Contract as the remedy for the historical corruption of the House (with the tacit implication that the corruption was driven by Democrats).
The marketing worked. Republicans gained control of the House for the first time since the New Deal, and Gingrich was anointed as Speaker.
He quickly moved to implement the Contract terms, including a balanced budget amendment, longer sentences for criminals, reductions in welfare payments, changes in the income tax structure to encourage marriage and procreation, small-business tax incentives, and a House member term limit amendment. Many of these eventually became law, though neither amendment was ratified.
At first, the Contract was, in general, loved by Republicans, hated by Democrats (who preferred to call it the Contract on America), and liked or disliked to varying degrees by moderates. But one effect was to counter Tip O’Neill‘s observation that “all politics is local.” All politics began to shift to a more national scope.
In an attempt to publicly live up to his promises of fiscal responsibility, he discouraged members of Congress from maintaining residences in DC. This eliminated one of the ways that aisle-crossing negotiations had occurred, since members of Congress often shared residences with each other prior to 1994. Once they stopped this practice, it became increasingly rare for them to fraternize with members of the opposing party. Eventually, such socializing was discouraged altogether.
But 1995 marked the beginning of the end for the Newt Deal. The public began to see what implementation of the Contract meant in their daily lives. Ultimately, he found himself caught between his promises to reduce spending and his inability to overcome a veto from President Clinton.
When the fiscal year ended at the end of September, 1995, Congress still hadn’t passed a budget, in part because of the increasing partisanship. Republicans wanted deep cuts in spending, but Clinton refused to go along with them. Gingrich threatened to prevent raising of the debt limit, which would put the country into default on existing debt. This would have a catastrophic impact on the global economy. The threat alone would raise interest rates on Treasury debt, due to the decrease in lender confidence.
At the last minute, Congress passed a continuing resolution, maintaining government services and funding at existing levels for six weeks. On the last day of the six-week reprieve, Republican leaders presented Clinton and Vice President Al Gore with a “best and final offer,” involving substantial cuts to Medicare. Clinton refused to budge on that point, and the negotiations ceased.
The next day, November 14, 1995, all non-essential government services shut down. Perversely, the shutdown cost taxpayers $400 million. Another continuing resolution was passed, buying a little more time, but ultimately, the extra time didn’t lead to a budget; government shut down once again.
Each side blamed the other. A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that just before the shutdown, 46% blamed the Republicans and 27% blamed the President for the looming crisis. Someone took a page from Dr. Seuss’s catalog and wrote about the shutdown. And then Newt opened his mouth and…well, let’s hear it from Tom DeLay, in his book No Retreat, No Surrender:
He told a room full of reporters that he forced the shutdown because Clinton had rudely made him and Bob Dole sit at the back of Air Force One … Newt had been careless to say such a thing, and now the whole moral tone of the shutdown had been lost. What had been a noble battle for fiscal sanity began to look like the tirade of a spoiled child. The revolution, I can tell you, was never the same.
The press immediately took the story and ran with it. The public, naturally, was horrified to hear that their lives were more difficult not because of any urgent government issues, but because the Speaker of the House was having a tantrum about sitting in the back of a luxuriously appointed, chartered Boeing 747…paid for with their tax dollars. The Republicans were unable to recover from the gaffe, and ultimately backed down on their budgetary demands of Clinton.
In the midst, Clinton was creating his own troubles, meeting clandestinely with Monica Lewinsky. This would prove to harm Newt far more than it ever would Bill.
The first signs of weakness in the Newt Revolution appeared in the 1996 election. Clinton beat Bob Dole, and the Republicans lost nine seats in the House. In the middle of 1997, several GOP Representatives attempted to convince him to step down, under the threat of voting in a new Speaker. He took another gamble, telling them that a coup might result in Dick Gephardt becoming Speaker. They backed down, but the seeds of doubt were sown.
Then the annual deficits, as sure as the sun rising in the east, suddenly disappeared. The economy, which had been growing at the most rapid pace in history, erased the deficit without having to make any hard cuts. The battles over economics no longer had meaning to the general public. The horses of corruption and deficit reduction that Gingrich rode to the House podium would no longer serve the party. Instead, the discussion shifted to policy based on morals, the one remaining point of differentiation for the GOP. As should be clear by now, this area is hardly one of Newt’s strengths.
The party began to run away from Gingrich, focusing on embarrassing the President over his tryst with Lewinsky in the Oval Office. This put the Speaker in a difficult position, as he was having his own much more lengthy affair with Callista. Sure, he could attack Clinton for perjury, but he would have been just as likely to do the same had he been asked under oath about his own affair. Nonetheless, he found himself in a position beyond his control. The GOP, no longer controlled by a weakened Gingrich, was betting that the public humiliation of the President, including publication of lurid details of his affair, would be the ticket to increasing their majorities in both houses of Congress. Newt had little choice but to run with it.
But instead of the expected gains, November, 1998, opened with Republicans showing the largest loss in Congress of a party not holding the Presidency, since World War II. The impeachment had proven to be extremely unpopular among Americans. This time, the calls for Gingrich’s resignation were much louder and more public. He agreed to step down as Speaker. Once again, his temper flared; despite an overwhelming victory in the election for his seat, he abandoned the job a mere three days after the election.
In 1999, a few months after learning that his second wife, Marianne, had multiple sclerosis, Gingrich called Marianne’s mother on Mother’s Day to wish her a happy 84th birthday. In the same phone call, he told Marianne that he wanted a divorce.
Subsequently, he married Callista, converted to Catholicism, and mostly stayed out of the public eye, preferring to exert influence through conservative think tanks, though he did throw up trial balloons of running for President in 2008.
His ghosts continue to haunt him, though. His success based on the strategy of highlighting corruption in the House turned into a Republican House besieged by similar corruption. Despite the Contract’s term limits, almost none of the Republican freshmen of 1994 left by 2000. Instead of the promised fiscal responsibility, Congress under George W. Bush increased the deficit at rates not seen since World War II. The new GOP hyperpartisanship, started by Gingrich’s 1994, has grown to epic proportions.
It’s telling that a man who was considered in 1994 to be far more conservative than Reagan ever had been is today being called a RINO by many. He is unlikely to appeal to members of the Tea Party. His conversion to Catholicism may cause unease among the Southern Baptists who represented much of his base in 1994.
His issues with personal morals are likely to hurt him with social conservatives. Despite his refusal to pay court-ordered child support, he said in the mid 90s that “any male who doesn’t support his children is a bum.” His public promotion of monogamy while privately repeatedly engaging in extramarital affairs is unlikely to help, particularly since he left both of his first two wives shortly after learning of their serious illnesses. “In sickness and in health,” indeed.
His temper tantrums don’t bode well for someone whose job is Commander-in-Chief. And his defeat in the government shutdown battle is being discussed in the media now as a cautionary tale, as a repeat may be in the works. According to a recent article by Nate Silver at the New York Times, Newt Gingrich’s candidacy is a dominated strategy, meaning that it is almost certainly a losing proposition regardless of which other Republicans choose to run in the primary.
In the end, this is a man with far more negatives than positives. The more people know about him, the less likely they are to prefer him over Romney or Palin, depending on with which wing of the party they more identify. He is unlikely to win in the primaries, let alone in the general election.
- Few Winning Scenarios for Gingrich (fivethirtyeight.com)
- New Republic: Newt Gingrich, Chameleon Candidate (npr.org)
- Newt Gingrich: Fox News Said ‘You’re Not Here Anymore’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Newt Gingrich Considering A Run For President (roysrants.wordpress.com)
- Newt Gingrich Testing the Waters for Presidential Run (onebluestocking.wordpress.com)
- Newt Gingrich Says He Expects To Be “In The Race” For President (alan.com)
- Newt Gingrich’s rough week (politico.com)
- Bill Maher On Newt Gingrich: “I Don’t Think Actual Newts Are This Slimy” (mediaite.com)
- Eric Alterman: Think Again: Where’s the Real Newt? (huffingtonpost.com)
- New Republic: Newt Gingrich, Chameleon Candidate (npr.org)
- Newt Gingrich Presidential Ambitions To Be Addressed By Potential Candidate (huffingtonpost.com)
- New Gingrich Website Inspires Web Shenanigans (huffingtonpost.com)
- Newt Gingrich kicks off 2012 exploratory bid with stock photo of supporters (dailykos.com)
- Sunday Late Night: Newt’s 1999 Divorce Lawyer Now Speaks for His Campaign (firedoglake.com)
- Newt Gingrich? No Way. (truebluenz.wordpress.com)
- You: Newt Gingrich a step closer to presidential bid (latimes.com)