Pundits debated whether Gingrich would become president in 1996 or wait until 2000. Others seriously asked if that would not be a demotion, since the election had made Congress the centre of government. Democrats looked cowed, because they were. Republicans looked invincible, because they thought they were.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven...
Wordsworth's poem on the French Revolution might have been written for the heady opening days of the Gingrich Era, when all things seemed possible.
The President could do little to affect or deter what was happening. Rarely, it seemed, had a movement united so large a constituency so unequivocally. Welfare, bureaucracy, regulations, career politicians - for all of these the End had come. Madame Noonan was knitting purple prose beside the guillotine.
The very giddiness was ominous. But who could have predicted that a year later, Clinton would be regnant? Gingrich was not the leader of his party but a drag on it, his polls even lower than the sinking approval rate for Congress in general and the Republican party in particular. Revolutions are known to devour their own; but it seemed that this one barely had time to develop an appetite before it gulped down Gingrich.
What happened? The villain in the piece was, as is usual in such cases, also the hero. Gingrich was undone by his own devices. A master of destructive techniques, he did not suspect that mere destruction destroys itself. A quick-change artist, he thought he could change society with political tools, which is like changing the weather with a thermometer.
It would be hard to overstate the audacity of Gingrich's Contract With America. No one had ever before tried to create a national mandate from congressional elections. Yet elections are clumsy tools for setting policy. All they determine is who will be carrying out policy for a while.
If a presidential mandate is shadowy at best, what can one expect of a congressional "mandate," assembled from so many different regional contests, embodied in no single spokesperson, reflecting agendas and urgencies not universally shared? It is one of the many ironies of Gingrich's movement that, while professing to return government to state and local levels, he urged candidates at those levels to run a national campaign, restricting their campaign themes to those dictated by his national "brain trust".
More important than the items included in the Contract were those excluded. Divisive issues were suppressed for the duration of the campaign - abortion, school prayer, gun ownership. The point was to concentrate on areas of maximum agreement. The goal was to win. After getting control of the Senate and House, Gingrich assured the restive, Republicans could reward their friends, take care of the gun lobby, cut off funds for abortion and so on.
Once the issues were chosen, the pollster Frank Luntz was asked to find the most seductive ways of phrasing each point. He found that even the word "Republican" was too divisive for inclusion, so the Republican Contract became just the Contract With America. Terminological sugar-coating would be important throughout the Revolution. Yet despite the Republican National Committee's expenditure ($265,000) to disseminate the Contract in TV Guide form, only 17 per cent of voters said they were aware of it. Those who knew about it were hazy on its contents.
There is no denying the effectiveness of the Contract as a campaign tool. It probably did sway a marginal portion of the voters. But only those bemused by a metaphor can think that the American people entered into a binding compact. The Contract language was invented to please people tired of politics as usual. "See," it said, "we are not your normal politicians making promises; we are contracting with you to do what you want and if we fail to do it, throw us out".
If voters fell for that hocus-pocus, well and good for the Republicans. But Gingrich was so in love with his own invention that he fell for it himself. Gingrich wanted to hold the American people to a contractual obligation they supposedly assumed when they voted Republican. When some Republicans in the House were tempted to waver, Gingrich held them to the Contract - and, through them, required the people to "keep their bargain". He said his model was Sergeant Stryker, the John Wayne character in Sands of Iwo Jima, who must be hard on his troops so they will perform well in battle.
Those Congressmen tempted to falter under the Gingrich discipline were lured back by the extraordinary access to money he was providing. Here is the second major irony of the Revolution. Term limits had to be included in the Contract, since they were especially popular with the key Perot voters. Perot had inveighed against incumbents who became tools of the Gucci-shod lobbyists. Yet no one has done more to butter up the lobbies than Gingrich. Money-raising by congressional officeholders has far surpassed all Democratic equivalents, giving members a big head start for their races in the presidential-election year.
After years of attacking Democrats' corrupt use of incumbency to please lobbyists, Gingrich came not to destroy but to perfect that practice - and to carry it to new heights. His excuse was revolutionary necessity. If money was needed to pass the Contract, that was justified by the fact that the Contract was the people's will. The alleged mandate excused any tactics needed for its implementation. In this way, the Contract became a money-washing machine. Dirty cash, processed through it, came out clean.
Gingrich likes to think of politics as war (or a war movie). As he told a group of Young Republicans: "I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty." The obverse of sugarcoating one's own proposals was to drench the other side in the language of revulsion. Opponents were not just wrong but vicious, corrupt, grotesque, sick, or insane - favourite Gingrich adjectives. "The Sixties" was a term invokable any time some nut shot another person, or TV got violent, or writers were more sexually explicit than Gingrich had been in his own mildly racy novel.
Yet the very speed with which he drove the Contract through the House began to look like an empty exercise as things bogged down in the Senate. Bob Dole, the then Senate leader, said there was no point to offering legislation in a form satisfactory to Contract supporters if the bills would be vetoed by the President.
Faced with this problem, Gingrich decided to go straight for the major obstacle. He would break the President's power entirely. "Gridlock" would be broken by "train wreck". The government, Reagan had taught Republicans to believe, was the problem, not the solution. All right, then shut the government down.
The instrument Gingrich chose to shove his dynamite into the logjam was forcing the government to adhere to the balanced budget. In any true sense, the Constitution does not permit Congress to "shut down" the government. Anyway Congress would not dare to cut off certain funds within its power of the purse - for the armed services (including veterans' hospitals), or federal law-enforcement agencies. The "shutdown" had to suspend certain services, not government. Even on such limited terms, this move was a maximum strike; if it failed, there was no bigger weapon left in the arsenal. And it was important to make the President look responsible for the suspension of services - a difficult thing.
This provoked the showdown over the budget late last year that led to the Federal government being closed down with thousands of workers left unpaid. Gingrich was confident that Clinton "had no backbone". Once again he fell for his own rhetoric. He was so contemptuous and dismissive of the opposition that he underestimated it. His own troops' anti-government rhetoric made light of the consequences of cutting off federal funds. Leaving federal workers unpaid, week after week, put a human face on "the bureaucracy". Punishing actual people is not the same as making ideological jokes about the worthless government.
The President, while refusing to crumple at the first assault, showed a sweet reasonableness in negotiation - a luxury Gingrich was not permitted. Gingrich had inspired his troops with an intransigence to which he was now held hostage. Revolutionary leaders end by trying to out-radical each other - Danton and Marat are succeeded by Saint-Just and Robespierre. When Gingrich seemed to lose the revolutionary fire in his belly, others were pushed forward to make sure he was not selling out.
Gingrich, who had shown amazing stamina for most of the year, became snappish and weepy. On 6 December, in the middle of the budget crisis, when he learned that a special counsel had been appointed to investigate his ethics, he broke down "sobbing like a child, heaving and shaking". Earlier, his petulance out of control, he had said that he had closed down the government because of a snub on [The Presidential plane] Air Force One.
Even as he was talking, complaining about the President's lack of manners and courtesy, Gingrich realised that he was making a mistake. He could not control himself. Gingrich's sense of affront came from an assurance about his mandate. As polls showed that the longer the suspension of government went on, the more Republicans were blamed, Gingrich had to strike a deal. His gung-ho troops were against "surrender", so the disciplinarian who had earlier held them to their pledges now ordered the abandonment of them. Meeting with the Republican caucus, Gingrich issued his personal fiat: "This is a team vote and we're going to do this as a team. We're all wearing the same jerseys today. Sometimes you don't agree with the plays that are called. But this is the way we're going."
What would happen if anyone did not vote with the team? Gingrich said he would not punish such a person, but he would keep a list, and "If any of you [on the list] come up and talk about how the team's got to help you out, I don't want to hear about it."
Gingrich had used his own supposed adamance as a battering ram, but in the final rush on the wall, the battering ram had shattered, not the wall. People's perception of Gingrich as a purely negative force led to the reaction against him personally, making him the most unpopular politician on the national scene. Even those who disliked Gingrich had, heretofore, credited him with political shrewdness. Now they were wondering about that.
The crowning irony is that Gingrich did more than anyone or anything else to make Clinton look good. It had been a hackneyed journalistic theme that these two men were eerily alike - self-indulgent baby boomers with no military service, good counterpunchers, glib, proud of their ability to talk themselves out of trouble. But when the two were brought together for protracted negotiations, though Clinton may not have grown, he seemed to have, so precipitately did Gingrich shrink.
Clinton had the better feel for his adversary, as he does for people in general. Gingrich is the bright boy who has to show you all he knows at once. His air of certitude makes him brittle. He began to suspect what other Republicans were sure of, that Clinton was "playing him like an organ". One of the things to be said of Clinton is that there is a full (if flawed) human being behind the facade. It is hard to feel confident about that in Gingrich's case. The contrast shows up in Clinton's almost comically large circle of real friends. Gingrich has a thousand allies and no friends.
It must have been a shock for Peggy Noonan, still patient by the guillotine, when the head that plopped into the basket was Newt's.
This is an extract from a longer article in the New York Review of Books 1996 NY Rev Inc.Reuse content