Archive for February, 2012
The battle over the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline continues. President Obama rejected a permit for the pipeline, which would transport carbon-rich tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. He said it wasn’t in the national interest to rush through reviews of the project, as Congress demanded in December 2011 legislation. Republicans say the decision costs thousands of jobs.
Newt Gingrich’s record as Speaker of the House became a hot topic in the Jan. 23 Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., with rivals Mitt Romney calling him a failed leader and Ron Paul saying his tenure was “chaotic.”
Fifteen years ago this month, Gingrich didn’t know it but he was entering his final term as Speaker and as a member of the House of Representatives. He would resign after the 1998 election: House Republicans lost five seats after Gingrich predicted a double-digit pickup.
But Gingrich’s speakership was already in trouble early in 1997. His party had suffered a net loss of nine House seats in the previous election; in January he would become the first Speaker ever disciplined by the House for ethical violations; and some of his top lieutenants were already angling to advance their careers at his expense.
To top it off, the visionary leader who delivered control of the House to his party for the first time in 40 years had to fight mightily to secure the votes from his own Republican colleagues for a second term as Speaker.
John Bresnahan and Jim Vande Hei, later of Politico, reported in February 1997 for the newsletter Inside the New Congress: “A top-level GOP leadership source adds bluntly: ‘It’s not the investigations that would bring Newt down. In the views of many members, the [vote for Speaker] was his last favor. His next mistake will cost him. . . . The question is: What will be his next mistake and when.”
Amid those pressures, how did Gingrich recalibrate — and what does that say about today’s Republican presidential candidate? Coverage from early 1997 shows Gingrich responded with a mix of conciliatory moves, shifts to the center and the occasional “red meat” for the party’s conservative base.
Gingrich is campaigning today as a consistent and true conservative leader, in contrast with what he calls Romney’s record as a moderate governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts. But after the disappointing 1996 election, Gingrich told his troops that voters wanted compromise, not confrontation.
A staffer for a conservative lawmaker told Inside the New Congress at the time: “Armey and DeLay [the majority leader and whip, respectively] are on our side, but we don’t know about Gingrich. We’ll find out soon enough.”
Gingrich pushed at the margins to solidify Republican control of the K Street lobbying community and he touted anti-union legislation that was favored by the GOP base. But he also rejected the idea, pushed by some conservatives, of an independent investigating committee to go after campaign finance irregularities at President Clinton’s Democratic National Committee.
Perhaps with good reason: The greatest accomplishment of Gingrich’s final term as Speaker would be the balanced budget agreement he struck with the president, a deal that preserved spending for liberal priorities while also delivering a capital gains tax cut and other cherished conservative goals. It was a win-win for Gingrich and Clinton.
But it wasn’t enough to expand the Republican majority in the House or to secure Gingrich’s hold on the speakership. Gingrich tried to broaden his leadership circle to bring in both conservative and moderate voices, and he moved to devolve some power from the Speaker’s office to committee chairmen. But this wasn’t enough either.
In fact, Gingrich seemed to try to slip out of the role of manager and into the more comfortable space of visionary. In the winter of 1997, the majority leader, whip and other members of the leadership team were handling more and more of the daily management chores.
Gingrich that winter drafted a forward-looking strategy memo — so forward, in fact, that it looked to a “reaffirming election” in 2004 and the transformations that Republicans could bring by 2017. It’s four “foci” for 1997 to 2000, which was probably the only point that had the attention of his colleagues at the time, were 1) Race; 2) Drugs; 3) Ignorance; and 4) Faith.
But running the House isn’t a turn-key operation — it clearly requires a hands-on Speaker who is at least as concerned about the present as he or she is about elections almost seven years away. Gingrich’s day-to-day control was slipping, as were estimates by conservatives that he could carry out their agenda.
Gingrich can boast of a long list of accomplishments as Speaker, but “chaos” was a regular feature. His tenure included ideological zigs and zags, management and communication failures and perhaps most telling, an inability to either grasp or carry out the most fundamental tasks of his leadership position: defining achievable goals and helping his team accomplish those goals on a daily basis.