Newt Gingrich served as speaker of the House of Representatives for four turbulent and productive years.
From 1995 through 1998, Congress forced a government shutdown, overhauled the welfare system, balanced the budget for the first time in decades and impeached a president for the second time in history.
Gingrich was in the middle of those debates, fiery in his rhetoric, yet willing to compromise and work with a Democratic president.
The 104th Congress
The election of 1994 was a watershed moment in U.S. politics. For the first time in four decades, Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives. Leading the charge was Gingrich, a former history professor.
He emerged from the back benches of the House, gaining a reputation as a rhetorical flamethrower, using words like “corrupt” and “pathetic” to denounce his Democratic opponents and the failings of what he tirelessly dismissed as the liberal welfare state.
“I would insist that it is impossible to maintain American civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t even read,” he said at the time.
As speaker, Gingrich led House Republicans through the planks in the “Contract with America,” a campaign document many GOP candidates used as a template in the 1994 election. Among other things, it called for passage of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, term limits and streamlining the operations of the House.
Few of the provisions made it into law. But working with President Clinton, Congress reformed welfare and enacted a balanced budget.
“The kind of speaker that he was, was one that was willing to be a consensus builder,” says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “He worked with Clinton. He was a person who got a lot accomplished with the president — the balanced budget, for the first time since 1969; the 100,000 cops bill; welfare reform; and a variety of other things.”
“We can make an honest, legitimate claim that this is the most significant Congress in a generation,” said Gingrich, “and you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson’s 1965-66 efforts to see a comparable scale of change.”
A ‘Split Political Personality’
But while Gingrich was working with the president on policy, he was working against him politically. House Republicans relentlessly pursued impeachment charges against Clinton for lying to a grand jury over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“The impeachment shows the split political personality of Newt Gingrich,” says Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
“On the one hand, just before the impeachment controversy started, he was working privately with Bill Clinton on a grand compromise on entitlements, which would have been the capstone of bipartisanship,” Pitney says. “But instead, the House became more polarized than ever. So you have Gingrich the healer, Gingrich the hollerer, Gingrich the thoughtful bipartisan and statesman, and Gingrich the hard-charging partisan.”
Gingrich also misstepped. In 1997, he was fined $300,000 for violating House ethics rules relating to a course he taught. He issued an apology on the House floor, acknowledging that his critics might have been right.
“To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident or too pushy, I apologize. To whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize,” he said.
After the 1998 election, in which House Republicans unexpectedly lost seats, Gingrich could see the political writing on the wall. He had already survived an attempted coup by his Republican colleagues. Shortly after the November election, he announced he would relinquish the speaker’s gavel and resign from Congress.
Campaigning in Iowa this week, Gingrich was asked about his years as speaker.
“If you look at the totality of what we accomplished, I had a pretty good speakership. I’d rather have done that than been a caretaker,” he said. “I did burn out my party. There’s no question [that] by the spring of 1998, they were just tired, and they didn’t want to fight anymore, and they didn’t want to have any new ideas — I actually had a senator say to me, ‘We’re not doing any ideas this year.’ “
Gingrich is still full of ideas and sounds very much the history professor on the stump. In fact, says American University’s Thurber, he has much in common with the man he’d like to replace in the White House.
“He may be very similar to President Obama, in the sense that President Obama at times sounds like the professor president, and certainly Newt does — he loves to give long, complex answers and really lectures on issues,” Thurber says.
It’s impossible to predict what kind of president Gingrich would make, but if his speakership is any guide, it seems safe to assume a Gingrich White House would be one of bold ideas and polarizing politics.