Envisioning a Gingrich Presidency
As anyone who follows the news will know by now, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is the current (and surprise) front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination. While I remain highly skeptical that Gingrich can overcome his own predilection for self-destruction and win the nomination (let alone match Mitt Romney’s money and superior organization), I’ve nonetheless found myself wondering what a Gingrich presidency might be like. Here are my answers to four questions about such a presidency, based on my own examination of his speakership and career in the House.
1. How assertively would Gingrich exercise presidential leadership? Quite assertively, at least at first. When Gingrich became speaker, he understood better than most the concept of an electoral mandate. He interpreted the 1994 elections as an endorsement of his party’s “Contract With America,” which mimicked the “100 days” concept of FDR by guaranteeing votes on ten legislative initiatives within that time period. Gingrich was steadfast and relentless in pushing his fellow Republicans to enact – or at least schedule votes on – every item of the Contract, as noted in an excellent article on Gingrich by Randall Strahan and Daniel J. Palazzolo. In my book on the office of speaker, I identified 27 cases of Gingrich exercising significant legislative leadership – the most for a House speaker since Sam Rayburn.
2. How partisan would Gingrich be as president? Rhetorically, probably the most partisan president we’ve had in some time. It was Gingrich, after all, who encouraged Republican House candidates in 1990 to use such charming words as “corrupt,” “pathetic,” and even “traitors” against their Democratic opponents. In terms of policy, however, Gingrich may be someone less party-line than people would expect. As speaker, he was willing to exercise leadership on behalf of issues important to him personally, regardless of what his party wanted (such as on funding for endangered species), and has since flirted with some issues on the Democrats’ agenda (though he may now claim to regret it).
3. What would be Gingrich’s relationship with Congress? Likely terrible. A good president needs allies on the Hill to get legislation enacted. Gingrich was never good at winning friends in the House, but by the time he left he had very few. Republicans became disgruntled with his poor handling of a budget showdown with President Clinton in late 1995, and they were not amused by his tendency to shift direction without consulting with his colleagues. After just one term as speaker, he had to campaign aggressively to win another term as speaker, and six months later he narrowly escaped a coup attempt by a handful of disillusioned young members of his party. The disappointing 1998 midterm elections finally forced him out.
And Gingrich certainly won’t get much love from congressional Democrats. Many still remember his “scorched earth” approach to seizing control of the House: besides a steady barrage of aggressive, sometimes nasty rhetoric about the House and the Democratic Party, Gingrich used ethics charges against Speaker Jim Wright to force Wright from office in 1989, which infuriated and humiliated Democrats. They turned the tables on Speaker Gingrich with their own ethics charges, and there is no reason to expect them to go easy on a President Gingrich.
4. Which former president would Gingrich be most similar to? Unfortunately, the one that comes immediately to mind is Jimmy Carter. Carter entered the White House convinced that he was one of the (if not the) smartest men in the room, and he often had difficulty hearing those who offered differing advice. Gingrich can be dangerously certain of his own brilliance too, and one fellow congressman recalls in a recent NPR story that the speaker would hold “meetings in the basement of the Capitol, with Gingrich pushing his agenda until 2 or 3 a.m. and not doing a whole lot of listening.”
In addition, Carter proved politically tone-deaf, managing to alienate his own would-be allies in Congress. He started with none other than the speaker of the House of the time, Tip O’Neill, whom he famously denied some inaugural tickets after his own election (a bad start to that relationship, needless to say). Speaker Gingrich was equally good at turning off his fellow partisans – and, unlike Carter, did not even have the excuse of representing a different branch of government.
Even discounting Carter’s notoriously bad luck – an oil embargo, a bad economy, and the Iranian hostage crisis – the similar leadership styles of both men bode ill for a Gingrich presidency. Perhaps this thought is what strikes fear in the hearts of Republican party leaders. After all, the G.O.P. skillfully used the Carter presidency to tarnish the Democratic Party for years. Democrats would be more than happy to return the favor.