Now that Newt Gingrich has become one of the top two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, he is falling under intense scrutiny. The closer a Republican candidate comes to winning the nomination, the more their conservative credentials are called into question. Gingrich had a very successful tenure as Speaker of the House in the mid 1990’s, as architect of the Republican Contract with America, which helped usher in the first Republican-controlled Congress in 40 years. But after achieving several victories for conservatives, he abruptly resigned from Congress in 1998, days after winning reelection to another term.
The Republicans’ Contract with America consisted of ten items that Republicans promised to bring to a vote on the House floor during the first 100 days of the new Congress if they took over. Gingrich was elected Speaker in 1995 and brought up all 10 items for a vote during the first 100 days as promised, although many of them went nowhere in the Senate. He worked with President Clinton to reform welfare in 1996, pass a capital gains tax cut in 1997, and pass a balanced budget in 1998, the first balanced budget since 1969.
But as usually happens when a conservative leader accomplishes a lot and becomes highly visible, there is a backlash. Gingrich became a lightening rod and prime target of the opposition. He was considered “polarizing” and “too controversial.” While a strong personality is advantageous for getting things done, it can also be a distraction that weighs others down. The government shutdown backfired and Republicans were blamed. The Democrats piled on, launching an ethics investigation into Gingrich’s history course, to determine whether tax-exempt contributions had been used for political purposes. Although the IRS later exonerated him, the House ordered him to pay a $300,000 penalty.
Concerns developed among House Republicans that President Clinton was getting the best of Gingrich in budget negotiations. Some thought Gingrich was backing off on tax cuts, and worried about his lack of opposition to Clinton’s pork-filled budget. Former Congressman Joe Scarborough (R-Fl) observed ruefully, “But Newt Gingrich did not have the luck, or good sense, to slowly fade away.”
In 1997, former Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ), from the freshman class of 1994, became the first member of Congress to publicly demand that Gingrich step down as Speaker. Salmon was fed up with the GOP for not producing an agenda. Salmon felt the GOP was on the defensive too much, caving in to President Clinton. He referred to Congress as “the Seinfeld Congress,” doing nothing to reduce the size of government and the federal debt.