by Geoffrey Kabaservice
Newt Gingrich, class warrior and scourge of the capitalist elite! Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Veteran Gingrich-watchers wouldn’t have predicted the latest Newt incarnation, either, but they probably weren’t too surprised. Over the course of his long political career – he first ran for Congress almost four decades ago – Gingrich has been consistently inconsistent and predictably unpredictable. Whatever the issue, he has been on all sides of it.
Obviously one can point to the chameleonic shifts that Gingrich’s GOP presidential rivals already have highlighted, including his former support for government-mandated health insurance and his now-regretted collaboration with Nancy Pelosi on the dangers of global warming. But take the subject of, for example, the Republican Party’s relations with African-Americans. Gingrich has lately been spanked by the New York Times editorial page for implying that black Americans prefer food stamps and government dependency to jobs, and indeed his efforts to stir white racial resentments seem likely to worsen the Republicans’ already dismal standing with black voters in the 2012 elections. But Gingrich has not always traded in this sort of George Wallace-style, minority-baiting populism. In 1989, after he won election as House Republican whip, Gingrich told an interviewer that his goal was to build the GOP as “a caring, humanitarian reform party.” He believed that “one of the greatest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights.” And despite his recent criticism of Mitt Romney as a despicable “Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich in that same 1989 interview identified himself with “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.”
For all of his reversals, it’s hard to tag Gingrich as a flip-flopper, if only because he argues his positions with a vehemence matched only by the vehemence with which he later argues diametrically opposed positions. It’s not inconsistency so much as political schizophrenia, although the logic of his changing postures always seems transparently obvious to Gingrich if no one else.
It’s possible that the upcoming South Carolina primary will be Gingrich’s last, snarling stand, after which he at last will pass from the national political stage. Or perhaps he will emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney and take his improbable criticism of Bain Capital all the way to the Republican convention. Who knows? With Gingrich, all attempts at prediction seem futile.
But his presidential run suggests at least some of the ways in which American politics has changed since Gingrich led the “revolution” that resulted in the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. The recent $5 million donation to a Gingrich-supporting Super PAC is evidence of the growing influence of money in politics, which Gingrich did much to advance as Speaker. Republicans’ apparent willingness to write off black voters points out that political polarization, as championed by Gingrich, now threatens to extend to social polarization, in which ethnic groups and social classes will be seen as homogenous and partisan voting blocs rather than as Americans whose needs must be addressed by both parties. The intensification of partisanship, in turn, makes it less likely that whoever wins the 2012 presidential election will be able to secure bipartisan agreement for any significant measures to combat the problems that confront us.
It’s possible, though, that Gingrich will be remembered by historians not so much for the things he did as for the breakthrough he might have achieved. One of the more eye-opening political histories of recent years was Steven M. Gillon’s The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation (Oxford University Press, 2008). Gillon revealed that in 1997, after the Republicans’ failed budget shutdown, Gingrich entered secret talks with Clinton to find common ground on reform of the Social Security and Medicare programs, the financial stability of which already was threatened by the aging of the baby boomers. The two leaders reached a tentative compromise in which Republicans would agree to use the budget surplus of the late ‘90s to strengthen the programs rather than spend it down as tax cuts, while Democrats would accept the incorporation of privately managed accounts into Social Security. As Gingrich told Gillon, “We were trying to think through the necessary reforms to modernize America to move into the twenty-first century.”
The budding agreement was derailed by the revelation of Clinton’s sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky. The result was Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the election of George W. Bush, the dissipation of the budget surplus, and the arrival of record-setting deficits heralding the coming age of austerity. Gingrich is partly to blame for the political failures of the past decade, but he once had the potential to redeem them as well. It’s not a pitch he can make to South Carolina voters, but it’s one that Americans should keep in mind when evaluating this talented and maddening figure.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party and the National Book Award-nominated The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment. He has written for numerous national publications and has been an assistant professor of history at Yale University. He lives outside Washington, DC.