Newt's shocking legacy: Was he more important than Reagan?

Political scientist Thomas Schaller tells Salon how Gingrich transformed the modern GOP -- in ways still felt today

Published January 26, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist             (AP/Reuters/Doug Mills/Mike Theiler/Yuri Gripas/photo montage by Salon)
Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist (AP/Reuters/Doug Mills/Mike Theiler/Yuri Gripas/photo montage by Salon)

It didn't used to be this way. For much of the postwar era, the GOP was the stronger presidential party, at one point winning seven out of 10 presidential elections. Their dominance at the executive level was matched by Democrats' firm grasp of Congress: Democrats controlled the House for four decades and the Senate for the same, with the exception, in the latter case, of six years during the 1980s. This Democratic hegemony famously ended in the 1994 "Republican Revolution," Newt Gingrich's masterwork.

The structural advantages that dominated the postwar 20th century flipped. Now it's the Democratic Party that has won four of the past six presidential elections (and five of the last six presidential popular votes), while Republicans have controlled the Senate for a slight majority of the past 20 years and the House for a vast majority of the past 20 years. The Republican Party itself has become "House-ified," as more and more members of that body matriculate into the Senate and carry with them the House's more confrontational style.

But as we see every day, the GOP's center of gravity being so firmly rooted in the House causes problems for the party's presidential aspirants. House members in safe red districts survive by appealing to the older, whiter constituencies who vote in GOP primaries -- the only electoral stage at which House incumbents face any real threat of losing their jobs. This pulls the party further rightward than GOP presidential nominees, who have to pull together a broader coalition to win, would have it.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, may have the presidential side of things down to a science, but their hopes of retaking the House any time soon are scant. Democrats also suffer a structural disadvantage at the state legislative and gubernatorial levels, elections that mostly take place in the midterm cycles when their voters don't turn out in nearly the same numbers that GOP voters do.

In his new book, "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress But Surrendered the White House,Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and columnist for the Baltimore Sun, documents the shift in the party's respective centers of gravity over the past 30 years. He argues that while each party obviously would prefer to have unified control of government, it makes sense ideologically that conservatives would prefer control of the Congress and liberals control of the presidency: If the goal is to limit governmental activity, control of even one legislative chamber is enough to achieve that; if the goal is to use government to effect change, the president, a unified actor, is the best hope.

Schaller recently spoke to Salon over the phone about his new book, the Democrats' hopes of ever retaking the House, why Newt Gingrich is the most important Republican politician of modern times, why it may be better for congressional Democrats when a Republican is in the White House, and plenty more. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You write about how events over the last 20 years have produced a structural advantage for Republicans in the House and Democrats in the presidency, while the Senate seems to remain up for grabs in each election cycle. But Republicans' grasp on the House seems to be stronger than Democrats' grasp on the presidency— you even admit that Democrats can't expect to win every presidential election but Republicans pretty much have the House locked down for the foreseeable future. Is this such a bad spot for the Republicans to be in?

I don't think it is, and I do think, at least for the rest of this decade, under the current set of House maps, there's very little chance— barring major party failure like, say, a new Republican president who becomes a disaster— that the Republicans will lose control of the House until at least 2022. It could be by then, depending on the performance of Democratic candidates in state legislative races and in governors' races as we get close to the next census and the next redistricting cycle, it could be that the Republicans could lock that in even further. Although, of course, it could be reversed if the Democrats have really good cycles in, say, 2018 and 2020 leading into the next round of redistricting.

Having said that, I think you're right. The presidency is more likely to flip between the parties, especially since it's very difficult for parties to win three presidential elections in a row. It's only happened in the Electoral College once in the last 60 years with Reagan, Reagan, and Bush 41 back in the 1980s. If you knew nothing about the quality of the candidates or their funding or the state of campaign finance law or the popularity of Barack Obama, if you just knew there was a Democratic president finishing a second term as Obama will be in 2016, you have to put your money, actually, on the Republicans to go ahead and unify the government in 2016.

I think Hillary Clinton sort of throws a monkey wrench in that. I think she's obviously a very credible and very competitive candidate, as most of the polls show as of now, so it's possible the Democrats can hold onto the White House. But their ability to recapture the Senate is a little less strong. Certainly, their ability to flip the House is basically near zero.

Do you think there's any way that Democrats could regroup on the state legislative basis and in governors' races by 2020 to even have a chance at having the better hand in redistricting?

There have been a few pieces written by Sasha Issenberg and Benjy Sarlin talking about how the Democrats clearly got caught in 2010's cycle as [Republican political operative Ed] Gillespie led this effort for the Republicans to help shore up the Republican House situation on the national level by winning governors' races and state legislative races in 2010. The Democrats are not going to get caught by this process, they're going to bring a lot of resources to bear to do the same, or at least to counterbalance the Republicans in the elections that run up to the next redistricting cycle.

Having said that, what's interesting is that there's a built-in structural advantage for Republicans if you're of the mind-set— and I'm one of these people— that all else equal, Republicans do better in non-presidential cycles because of the drop-off effect where younger, poorer, non-white voters tend to turn out at lower rates.

The reason is, of course, because the majority of the national governors are elected in non-presidential cycles. You have five governors who are elected in odd years in states like Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Kentucky; you have two governors who are elected to two-year terms so they're up in both presidential cycles in Vermont and New Hampshire; there's 11 governors who are elected simultaneously with the president.

The other 32 governors— if I'm doing the math right— are all elected in midterm cycles, and that's a huge Republican advantage. There's nothing that the Democrats can do in terms of fundraising or message or resources dedicated to the state legislative level and the state gubernatorial level that can counteract that unless they start to get states to move their gubernatorial elections to cycle with the presidential elections— which wouldn't be a bad idea, by the way! That's not going to happen, though.

There are some states that have state legislative elections during presidential cycles but a majority of the state legislators are also elected in midterm cycles, so there's a built-in handicap if you start from the presumption— which I think is correct— that Democrats do better in presidential cycles and Republicans do better in non-presidential midterms.

You advance the idea that the "House-ification" of the GOP hurts the party's chances in presidential elections or in any election where's there's a statewide race, where candidates have to appeal to a whole state rather than these narrower, older, whiter demographics. But it also makes the point that House members are acting completely rationally -- in their own self-interest -- by targeting these demographics for their own survival, even if that hurts the party's national efforts to win presidential elections. Is there any way this calculus could ever change? Is there any way House members would recognize the damage they're doing to their presidential hopes?

I think we're seeing a little bit of the tamping down of the reactionary-style politics that tends to come from the House. [2012 Missouri GOP Senate nominee] Todd Akin is a perfect example: a House member running for the Senate who could probably get away with saying things like "forcible rape" in town hall meetings and in local Republican fundraisers where nobody bats an eye at something like that.

But then it makes it into the statewide media and pretty quickly is mainlined into the national media, and Todd Akin is a national figure dominating the news cycle for four or five days in the middle of the campaign in 2012, all because a comment that used to be perfectly salable to a largely conservative primary constituency that he was essentially indebted to to win the nomination to a safely gerrymandered House seat in Missouri is suddenly a national problem for the party. You have national presidential candidates and other people being asked to comment on it, and that's a problem.

It's easy to say that that's an unusual case but there are other cases of this. It's not just always the Louie Gohmerts and the [Steve] Kings and others, but those are the kind of people whose names seem to crop up into the news cycle, creating problems where national media reporters are asking presidential candidates, what's your reaction to this? Do you agree? Do you disagree? And there's really no good answer for presidential candidates. If they agree, they become part of the firestorm, and if they disagree, then they're party apostates and they've got problems on the right.

My basic contention there with respect to the House is that these Republican members have very safely drawn districts and they're appealing largely to their primary constituency at the nomination stage. After the Tea Party wave they're acutely aware of the risks to their electoral livelihood, not in the general elections but more likely in the primary stage, so that's the audience they need to talk to and that's the audience they fashion their image and their message to. That message may be perfectly fine for their statewide or district-wide constituency in the House or the Senate but is often not marketable on a national level. I don't know how you get around that because ultimately, their self-interest is anchored in their ability to win their election or reelection, not necessarily to elect the president.

Another term you mention in the book is "partisan institutionalism," where parties that have structural advantages with certain institutions will try to naturally shift power to those institutions. Since Democrats have an advantage in the Electoral College, how much in their interest is it to strengthen the presidency as much as possible? What level of caution should they take, knowing that a Republican, sooner or later, is going to be in the White House again?

They should, and as I argue, the corollary to that is that Republicans should venerate congressional rule, all else equal. Both parties, of course, would love to run everything. As we've seen in the very early moments of this 114th Congress, people like Mitch McConnell and John McCain have said in public interviews that the job of this Congress is not to spoil the party's brand image between now and 2016 so that the 2016 nominee can win the presidency and the party can unify the government.

Of course, both parties would like to have Congress and the presidency, but the fact of the matter is that by the time Obama leaves office we'll have spent 44 of the last 64 years with some variation of divided government, either Democrats in Congress and Republican presidents— which was most of the early second half of the 20th century with Eisenhower and Reagan and Bush and Nixon -- and then, more recently, Democrat presidents like Clinton and Obama with Republicans in Congress.

Unified governments are very, very rare -- only 30 percent of the time in the last 64 years. If you have to pick, Republicans, as I argue in the book, should want the Congress because the Congress, first of all, from a strict constructionist view, is the first article, half of the original Constitution's language, if you take out the amendments. It clearly was, by the arguments of James Buchanan and Willmoore Kendall, viewed as a government that should be centered and run and led by the Congress, whereas the presidency, because it's a unitary actor... is the institution that breaks the equilibrium. It's the institution representing rapid change and the dramatic shift in government because it's housed in a single person.

If your philosophical orientation toward government as a conservative is notionally about reducing or restricting or limiting or rolling back government policies and having the federal government do less, you're actually institutionally more comfortable running Congress than the presidency, if you have to pick. Conversely, to answer your question, the Democrats should feel more comfortable running the presidency, which, of course, also includes the appointment power over the courts and so forth.

You also make a compelling case in the book that it's Newt Gingrich, not Ronald Reagan, who's the most important figure in modern Republican politics. Could you explain that?

It's twofold. I mentioned Willmoore Kendall and James Buchanan, these conservative political theorists who were writing about what they call legislative supremacy, the notion that we should have a Congress-centric government. They were writing about this in the '50s, and when Buchanan's book was reissued in '92 or '93, who was the author of a new introductory forward? It was none other than Newt Gingrich, who talks about how, really, except in times of war and other extraordinary national emergencies, the president should be a secondary actor. Newt Gingrich was being a little bit hypocritical by running for president in 2012 because in his heart of hearts, I think, he doesn't believe in a presidential-centric government.

Now, every presidential historian and presidential scholar will tell you that we had a much more powerful presidency in the 20th century than in the 18th or 19th centuries. There may be no reversing that, and there are many Republicans and conservatives who believe in a strong executive, and it's not just the Dick Cheneys of the world. The fact of the matter with respect to Gingrich's influence is that he was the guy that not only foresaw a strategy to win the Republicans control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years when he helped lead the Republican revolution of 1994, but he had a philosophical orientation about why that was important.

In the book, there's a quote from Grover Norquist, who influenced this book more than almost anybody because it was this quote that set me simmering for about three days and caused me to change the whole focus and argument and structure of the book. He said, "You can govern with just the House," and I was like, what is he talking about? That's absurd! I realized that, well, if your philosophical orientation toward government is for it to do less or spend less and generally block federal power in favor of state power, then yeah, if you can keep your majority together and you're John Boehner, you can govern from the House, if "governing" -- and I'm using air quotes here -- means to stop things, to thwart things, to water down and dilute federal power.

Say Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 and the Democrats have then won three straight presidential elections. Would that be almost damning for the Democratic Party? Because then you'd have another incumbent Democrat against whom Republicans would probably pick up seats in 2018, and then in 2020 when redistricting comes up you would have Democrats trying to pull off a fourth straight presidential win, which is really difficult— so that year could be really good for the Republicans, too. Do you think this is something Democrats should be worried about?

Let me give you two responses to that. First of all, theories of midterm election voting essentially break into two sort of mutually exclusive arguments. One is the surge-and-decline argument, which we sort of talked about earlier; the notion that it's a different electorate. It's smaller in terms of the percentage of people who turn out, but it's not representative of the presidential cycle; it skews older, more affluent, whiter and so forth compared to the presidential election where more people turn out who are non-white and younger.

Do you think that would even hold if there was a Republican president? Do you think more of the Democratic electorate would show up just because they're so upset with Republican rule?

Well, that leads to the second theory. The second theory is that midterms are really used as a report card on presidents, and usually a negative rejection of presidential power and politics. Midterm voters, even if they are a subset of whiter, older voters, they use this as a referendum moment to send the president a signal or message -- usually a negative one -- by taking seats away from that president, maybe even so many seats that that president loses a chamber or two.

In fact, if you notice the history of divided versus unified government over the last 50 or 60 years, when do we get divided governments from unified governments? At midterms elections: 1994, we created divided government from a previously Democratic unified government; 2006, we create a divided government from a previously Republican unified government; 2010, we create a divided government with the slip of the House from a previously unified Democratic government. Voters, whether they're swing voters who are not connected to the two parties or they’re voters that turn out in midterms only, they use that moment to divide previously unified governments.

That said and all else equal, congressional Democrats actually want a Republican in the White House, like you asked, because the referendum tends to work against the White House. Then there's the second phenomenon we already talked about, which is the fact that this decline in turnout from the surge-and-decline phenomenon tends to work against Democrats because of the nature, demographically, of who doesn't turn out at midterm. If you put those two things together, Republicans are really advantaged when? They're advantaged at midterms when a Democrat is in the White House, whereas when the Republicans are in the White House, Democrats gain from the referendum phenomena, which might be washed out a little bit by the fact that older, whiter voters dominate the midterm cycles.

The Republicans, again, are advantaged here because when the Democrats have the White House they get both the demographic advantage of the dropout and they get the referendum effect of the dropout. That's why 2010 is a really good cycle for them and 2014 is a really good cycle for them. For congressional Democrats, you're right. They almost sometimes need the Republican presidency to vote against to compensate for the fact that fewer of their voters show up in midterms.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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