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.
Other conservatives from the freshman class of 1994 joined Salmon, including Scarborough, Steve Largent (R-Okla.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who demanded that Gingrich stand firm on the Contract with America or step down as Speaker. In the summer of 1997, several House Republicans including Tom DeLay (R-TX), John Boehner (R-OH), Bill Paxon (R-NY), and Dick Armey (R-TX) unsuccessfully attempted to replace Gingrich as Speaker.
Republicans barely kept control of the House in the 1998 midterm elections, losing five seats. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) mounted a campaign to replace Gingrich as Speaker. Salmon and 11 GOP House members openly opposed Gingrich. The final straw came when Salmon announced on CNN’s Larry King Live the day after the election that he and six other unnamed Congressman would not vote to reelect Gingrich as Speaker, and there could be as many as 30 or 40 more joining them. Doing so would have forced the GOP back into caucus without electing a Speaker.
Two days later, on November 5, 1998, Gingrich announced his retirement, even though he had just won reelection to Congress. Stepping down from Speaker and his Congressional seat, he said, "I'm willing to lead but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.” He admitted that it was tough to lead since he had become a lightening rod.
Who was right? Gingrich got a lot accomplished while working with a Democrat president; in fact Clinton’s biggest accomplishments as president were actually victories for the conservative agenda. But at some point Republicans in Congress lost faith in Gingrich and thought he was capitulating to Clinton. As Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.) put it, "Gingrich has won a lot of victories for us, but he lost one crucial battle and we can't risk losing the majority, which is the war, over one general."
It comes down to pragmatism versus principles. At what point is it possible to get past the gridlock in Congress without compromising? Gingrich referred to Salmon and his opposition group as “The Perfectionist Caucus.” Gingrich believed their demands went too far and could not be accomplished with a Democrat president.
Salmon has a respectable 94 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union over his six years in Congress. Gingrich has an almost equally impressive 90 lifetime rating. Both are very conservative, they simply came to different conclusions about how pragmatic to be in the mid-1990s in order to get anything accomplished with a Democrat president.
If Gingrich does end up winning the presidency, Salmon will be back. Salmon is running for Congress in Arizona again and expected to win. We need leaders like Gingrich who can rally people behind his big personality to get things accomplished. We also need leaders like Salmon who will stick to their principles. Having learned from the past, there is reason to believe these two will be able to work together this time through our system of checks and balances. Gingrich has learned his lesson, and sounds more like the principled Gingrich of the early 1990’s than the pragmatic conservative of the later 1990’s.