Gingrich Lost and Found

Article excerpt

It wasn't merely the political career of House Speaker Newt Gingrich that came to an abrupt end after the Republican Party's surprising losses in the November 1998 congressional elections. It was also a theory of history that died.

One might call it the world according to Gingrich, for he was surely its chief proponent and its public face. But to describe it as such runs the risk of making it seem somehow idiosyncratic, something uniquely or chiefly Gingrich's. It was anything but. What made Gingrich a leader was first and foremost his abundance of followers -- lots of them, and not just in Congress or in the organized Republican Party, but including just about all those who had taken personal pleasure in the election results four years before, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years. This was his doctrine and theirs, a view of progressive Republicanism, a new, ideological Republicanism on the march. True, by 1998, many of Gingrich's followers (inside and outside Congress) had turned on him. And not for quite a while has it been possible for Republicans and conservatives to hear the words "Republican Revolution" without cringing in embarrassment. But the truth is that not so many years ago, the phrase quite accurately captured their frame of mind, their own sense of who they were and what they were up to. The 1994 GOP electoral triumph, which they felt as their own, they recognized also as his. Those who knew Gingrich personally knew all about his personal eccentricities, his vanities, his intellectual conceits. But those things didn't matter so much next to the bigger things Gingrich represented and the political achievement he had just brought off. Gingrich was no less than the chief theorist, lead strategist and tactician, and principal spokesman of the activist Republican Party, manifesting itself in 1994 as Republican Revolution. This doctrine of Republican progress was ideological, conservative, populist, and triumphalist in character -- each a quality that found its personification in the man on point, Newt, now Speaker Gingrich.

The conservatism is perhaps the most obvious, certainly the element most visible to liberals and Democrats. In 1994, it came with an official document, the Contract with America. In it, GOP members of the House and aspiring Republican candidates pledged to hold votes in the first 100 days of a Republican-majority Congress on a slew of stalwart conservative issues, including balancing the budget, cutting taxes, reining in entitlement programs, ending welfare, and getting tough on crime. Conservatives came in various stripes in 1994, as they do now, ranging from libertarian to the religious right. This was, however, a document they could all agree on. If the idea was gimmicky, and it was, it nonetheless served as their own internal organizing principle and program of action. They rallied around it, and their opponents rallied against it.

This conservatism was anti-Washington. In part, it was a product of the equation in the minds of conservatives of the nation's capital and liberalism, against which conservatism had arisen. Washington, the thinking went, was out of touch with the concerns of Americans, and its principal product, big government, was a negative influence on their lives. Gingrich, who first came to fame leveling the corruption charges that toppled House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, saw the delegitimation of Washington as essential to conservative change. Wright's corruption was of a piece with a Washington culture of corruption, itself the product of liberal policy and arrogant one-party control. The anti-Washington character of conservatism was also a solution to a practical political problem: It united the various strains of conservatism. Whatever particular issue a conservative activist cared about, a bigger federal government was not the solution and was in the activist view probably contributing to the problem in the first place. …