Posted on January 09, 1995 in Washington Watch

During the past six weeks, incoming Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich has dominated the U.S. media.

Like a disciplined field marshal executing his battle plan, Gingrich has seized the initiative on every front. He has restructured Congress, named new committee chairmen, defined and prioritized the issues and set the agenda of the first day and the first three months of the new Congress.

It is interesting to note that throughout this massive undertaking, Gingrich has faced little internal opposition to his mandate to direct the new Republican majority in Congress. That Gingrich is far from being the most senior Republican in the Congress has never seemed to matter. And while the Republican party is not unified, Gingrich’s brand of confrontational conservatism is now the dominant trend in the Congress (especially among the large group of newly elected Republicans); and so for now Gingrich’s control is uncontested.

What is equally interesting is that despite Gingrich’s success in defining a national agenda and displaying a real leadership in taking control of Congress, his personal standing among the public and the press is quite low.

Immediately after the election, while the Speaker-to-be was still riding high on positive press coverage, one national columnist warned that the very media that was elevating Gingrich would soon turn against him (as it has in the case of most recent major political leaders). When that change did occur, the columnist warned, Gingrich would sink in popularity and lose his grip on the national debate.

To some extent, that change has taken place: a number of critical articles and exposes have appeared which treat the Republican leader to harsh and unflattering commentary – but he has been unfazed by the attacks.

It is fascinating in this context to watch a Gingrich encounter with the press. He defines his agenda. As the press “pack” (like a “pack of wolves”) inundates him with questions about his agenda, he simply turns them away.

The Gingrich ground rules seem to be: he’ll only answer the questions he wants to answer and discuss only the topics he has come before the press to discuss. And the Speaker has not hesitated to scold the press publicly for what he has described as their unfair efforts to define issues themselves and not accept the definitions given to events and issues by political leaders.

For example, after emerging from the White House last week after what both Gingrich and Clinton described as a “positive” and “cooperative” exchange of views, the media pressed the Speaker to discuss the differences that divided the White House and the Republican Congress. Instead of accepting this “bait,” Gingrich rebuked the assembled press for ignoring the description of the meeting as “cooperative.” His firm rebuke apparently worked, since it forestalled further questions on that subject.

Gingrich’s approach seems to be based on a recognition that his power is derived from his party’s victory in the elections, his ability to lead Congress and set the daily legislative agenda. He understands that his personal public standing and his relationship with the press will, over the long term, be determined by his ability to win legislative battles and to continue to define the agenda, and not the other way around.

It is this self-confidence that contributes to Gingrich’s leadership ability. He has been planning this Republican takeover for over 20 years. While other Republicans were content with their minority status, Gingrich planned an issue-oriented campaign to achieve a Republican majority. His lecturing across the country, his video tapes, his political fundraising and his political interventions have helped in the victorious campaigns of many of the new members of the Congress not only in this past year but in several previous election cycles – so much so that many of these Republicans are known as “Gingrich clones.”

And while I personally feel that much of the Gingrich message and many of the items on the Gingrich agenda are wrong-headed and, if implemented, would lead the U.S. down the wrong path – his is the only clear, coherent and self-confident program that has been offered to American voters in the past decade.

In a nutshell, the conservative view of Gingrich is that government has become intrusive and a burden. He calls for a taxpayer rebellion that will limit the role of government in people’s lives. Ignoring the essential role that government has been called on to play in ending racism, the effects of racism, in meeting the crisis of urban decay and enduring poverty – Gingrich and his movement have attracted the support of angry white, principally male voters who feel paradoxically both threatened and ignored by the social programs of the past three decades.

By saying “the liberal press be damned,” Gingrich appears to be saying, “we have the voters, we control Congress – that’s the source of our power.” And it is this self-assurance and the simplicity of his message that has carried the national debate.

In comparison with the performance of the White House during the same six week period, Gingrich appeared as the model of principled leadership that inspires confidence in others.

The President faces a more difficult set of circumstances than the Speaker. He leads a party that is in disarray, shell-shocked by its November defeat, and a party that is none too hesitant to publicly criticize its leader.

From the beginning, Clinton had a difficult time winning Democratic support for his agenda. His first legislative effort – the Economic Stimulus package of 1993 – was defeated despite a Democratic majority in Congress. Even the President’s later victories, on the Budget and Deficit Reduction Bill and the Crime Bill of 1994, were so diluted by compromises (made to win reluctant Democratic votes) that his leadership was always in question. Clinton’s health care and campaign reform proposals never really stood a chance for the same reason: the failure of Democrats to support their leadership.

Today, the same Democratic party that feuded between its liberal and moderate wings over who was responsible for Clinton’s victory in 1992 – which was really a debate over which direction the party should go in Clinton’s first two years in office – is once again engaged in a vitriolic debate over which wing of the party is responsible for the losses of 1994.

Party moderates, headed by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), claim that the losses came because the President and his party have been too liberal and, therefore, lost white male support and with it the 1994 elections. Liberals, headed by the liberal Congressional leadership and the more liberal National Rainbow Coalition of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, counter that Democrats lost because party abandoned its traditional bases of African Americans and unions.

The liberal wing of the party makes a better case. In fact, most of the Democrats’ Congressional losses in 1994 were experienced by moderate DLC members. And in critical elections, such as the victory of Senator Chuck Robb in Virginia and Senator Dianne Feinstein in California, it was the black, Hispanic and labor votes that were decisive.

There is a real debate over the changes that are taking place in U.S. society. Changes in technology and employment patterns (that have resulted in factories closing and making obsolete several formerly productive sectors of the economy), changes in population patterns (white Americans leaving the nation’s cities and moving to the South and West or the farther suburbs), and the instability in the world resulting from the end of the Cold War, and the changes in social mores – all of these have combined to produce anger and alienation and a volatility in the voting public.

It was reaction to these changes that brought Ross Perot to prominence. It was Bill Clinton’s message of hope that responded to this voter insecurity that brought him victory in 1992. And it was Newt Gingrich’s message of frustration with the failure of government that helped bring about the Republican sweep in 1994. While Republicans have found a coherent message in the Gingrich “Contract with America,” Democrats are still debating how to respond and how to redirect their message to win back voter support.

And within this debate lies part of the President’s dilemma. He leads a party of at least two, and at times innumerable, wings, with each wing competing for both loyalty and attention and neither willing to compromise or even silence its public criticism of the other. In a real sense, the Democratic majority in Congress during the past two years wasn’t a majority at all. The constant battles fought and compromises made by the White House with other Democrats weakened the President, cost him public support, denied him the image of leadership on domestic issues and emboldened his Republican critics.

The same lack of unity plagues the Republican party at times, but not within its Congressional delegation. The divisions that exist among Republicans will not become a factor in the national debate until the 1996 Presidential campaign starts to heat up later this year. It will be then that the party’s moderate and conservative wings will clash. For the time being, however, the path is clear for Speaker Gingrich to lead his Republican revolution in the House of Representatives.

Gingrich will succeed in passing much of the promised “Contract with America.” This “Contract” is a rehash of Reagan Republican doctrine: tax cuts, “trickle-down economics (tax breaks for wealthy Americans and large corporations in hope that the resultant benefits will “trickle down” into the economy to create economic growth and jobs), increased defense spending, punishment-centered anti-crime legislation, and severe cuts in a wide range of social programs.

While it is expected that the “Contract” will pass in the Gingrich-led Congress, its fate is not so certain in the more moderate and deliberative Senate. Already, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole has expressed reservations concerning both the “Contract” and Speaker Gingrich’s confrontational style of conservatism.

Some Democrats and even the President himself, have now come out in favor of some aspects of the “Contract,” though they are trying to frame it in terms more acceptable to Democrats. For example, they are promising tax breaks for “middle class” Americans – those earning under $75,000 a year – while the Republican “Contract” defines “middle class” as those earning under $200,000 a year.

For now, it appears that Gingrich has no plans to delay or compromise on his agenda; and it will, most probably, pass unimpeded through 1995. He will pass most of his program, though it may never become law. The Senate will modify or block much of the House Speaker’s efforts, and the President will veto parts that he finds objectionable.

Until these obstacles emerge, however, Gingrich will lead. How the Speaker will react to challenges to his program remains to be seen. But it is clear that his bold challenge to the President and his control of the national debate will be one of the defining characteristics of 1995 and will help to set the issues debate for the 1996 elections.

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