This is a great column by Joe Scarborough written recently for Politico. It recounts the 1997 confrontation that resulted from 11 House Republicans holding the line on taxes and spending when Newt Gingrich wanted to cave. The tax increase that Gingrich joined with Democrats to support failed by one or two votes, and participants like Joe Scarborough, Tom Coburn, and others have been telling the story ever since.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Newt Gingrich had a lousy week and will probably lose the Florida primary on Tuesday. But for those tempted to once again predict the speedy collapse of his campaign, consider yourselves forewarned. I’ve known this guy long enough to realize that the only three species destined to survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches, Cher and Newton Leroy Gingrich.
I first met Gingrich 17 years ago at a Destin, Fla., fundraiser held in my honor a few weeks after Newt declared that I was too conservative to win the general election. But after I won the primary against the moderate woman he anointed, there he was in Florida looking supremely bored and a little put out that he was having to sit through another politician’s speech.
In the ensuing years, I found the mercurial maverick to be inspiring and maddening, disciplined and self-indulgent, forward thinking and short-sighted, gifted and dumb — sometimes all within the same hour.
If, as Shakespeare wrote, what’s past is prologue — and it often is — then Gingrich’s political history is particularly relevant now. It’s a history I know well because I was there. And what I saw at the revolution has concerned me since I left Washington.
Many who have heard my harsh assessments of Gingrich over the past year have assumed that I feel a personal animus toward my former colleague. That’s just not true. That fact is that I remain awestruck that Newt envisioned a Republican majority when his closest allies thought he was crazy. Even an eternal optimist like me laughed at the “Think Majority” sign hanging over the NRCC reception area in early 1994.
But Newt was right and we were wrong. The Gingrich Revolution overtook Washington (with a huge assist from Bill Clinton’s overreaching agenda) and good things followed. Within a few years, Congress passed the first balanced budget in a generation, welfare reform, tax cuts and meaningful congressional changes.
If Newt’s story ended there, I might have a Gingrich 2012 sign in my front yard. But unfortunately, it does not.
Three years into his speakership, the man who helped draft the Contract With America began trying to undo some of that document’s key provisions. The government shutdown had badly damaged the speaker’s brand and he went to work trying to raise his 27 percent approval rating.
In April 1997, Gingrich told The New York Times he was ready to be a kinder and gentler Republican by negotiating away the very tax cuts that he had once called “the crown jewels of the contract.” Soon, conservatives were being pressured to vote for big spending appropriations bills. In his final speech from the floor of Congress, Newt Gingrich lashed out wildly at the same freshmen who had made him speaker — mocking us as cannibals who made up “the perfectionist caucus.”
It was the last time Newt would attack the most conservative members of his caucus from the lofty perch as speaker. In 1997, ten of my fellow classmates had led a coup attempt against Gingrich, shutting down the House over the speaker’s efforts to violate the Contract with America by swelling the number of committee staff members.
Conservative stalwarts like Steve Largent, Tom Coburn and Matt Salmon joined me and seven others to demand a cut in spending and a promise to hold firm on tax cuts.
Newt did not take the rebellion lying down. He immediately summoned the sergeant of arms to drag the 11 rebels down to a Republican caucus meeting in the bowels of the Capitol basement, where Newt lined us up in front of a packed room of seething House members who were now missing the first day of their Easter recess because of our insurgency. Gingrich then began screaming and demanded that the 11 of us account for our behavior.
He then taught me a political lesson I will always remember: Never willingly hand the microphone over to your enemies. Especially when the first rebel to speak was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame and one of People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Men Alive.
As Steve Largent grabbed the microphone, the crowd of GOP members was still shouting insults. But by the time he stood behind the podium, even our most hostile opponents grew quiet.
Steve spoke softly about how he signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks and remembered shaking the hand of the team’s owner after the deal was done. A few years later, the NFL Players Association went on strike. But Largent told the mob, who were now transfixed, that he crossed those picket lines because he signed a contract and gave his word. Largent told the group that a few years later, the NFL players went on strike a second time and he was once again one of the few NFL players to keep reporting for work. For Steve, it was a matter of principle.
The beautiful NFL Hall of Famer then quietly moved in for the kill.
Turning to the Speaker, who a year earlier had been named Time Magazine’s person of the year, Largent said, “Newt, you were the one who drafted the contract and then told us to sign it. Now, you’re the one pressuring us to break it. But Newt, if I wasn’t intimidated by the thought of 250 pound linebackers who wanted to kill me every time I crossed the field, why would I be intimidated by you?”
And with that, the speakership of Newt Gingrich was over. A year later, he would be driven from power and sent into a political wilderness from which he emerged 14 years later on a Saturday night in South Carolina.
Gingrich’s precipitous fall from power was the result of arrogance, self-satisfaction and a fatal tendency to flit from issue to issue — and even from core conviction to core conviction — in the seeming belief that if he spoke well enough (and used as many adverbs as possible), no one would notice that he was doing something he had equally eloquently (and equally adverbially) opposed before.
Let’s be clear: Gingrich is an important figure. Regardless of what happens in Florida and beyond, he will be remembered as the man who brought the Reagan Revolution to Congress. Yet it will also be recorded that Newt compared the Great Reagan with Neville Chamberlain, dismissed Reaganomics as flawed and called Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union an utter failure a few years before the U.S.S.R. was relegated to the dustbin of history.
These unpleasant facts do not stop Newt from trying to embrace the same policies he once denounced (one wonders if he even remembers the contradictions at this point), but that’s what makes my former colleague so fascinating. And so troubling.
A Gingrich campaign is always a high wire act without the net and sometimes, the main actor in this manic routine actually makes it to the other side. But after his listless march through the Sunshine State, even I wonder how many more performances remain.