The power grab that destroyed American politics: How Newt Gingrich created our modern dysfunction

In '94, the GOP used Contract with America to claim mandate for right-wing policies. It worked. Let's learn from it

Published May 23, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Charles Tasnadi/Molly Riley/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Charles Tasnadi/Molly Riley/Photo montage by Salon)

In rolling out his proposal for a progressive agenda, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly referenced Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." On one level that makes sense, since the "Contract with America" is arguably the only example most people can think of where a national political platform of sorts did not come from a presidential campaign. It also played a significant—though sometimes poorly understood—role in altering the trajectory of American politics, and thus it makes sense to reference it when setting out to alter that trajectory again.

A lot of what people remember about the Contract just isn't so, and a lot of what was so is forgotten. It was not a conservative document so much as it was a targeted GOP play for the support of Ross Perot voters (as described in the book "Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and the Republican Resurgence" by Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone), and despite its poll-driven nature (touted by Gingrich at the time), its late release indicated it was less a play for broad political support than it was for shaping elite political discourse after an election Republicans knew they would win. At its core, it was the very essence of political gamesmanship, even as it paraded itself as a populist attack on the establishment.

In contrast, de Blasio's agenda clearly is a progressive document, and brings together a range of similarly themed aspirations to create a fairer, more inclusive future. His 13 points are organized under three broad headings,“Lift the Floor for Working People,” including points like raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour and passing comprehensive immigration reform; “Support Working Families,” including passing national paid sick leave and paid family leave, and making Pre-K, after-school programs and childcare universal; and “Tax Fairness” including closing the carried interest loophole and ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas.

Aside from referencing Gingrich's Contract, other statements de Blasio has made reinforce a very different picture of the core political processes as well as the end goal that he has in mind, as Amanda Terkel reported:

"Obviously the Washington dynamics are broken for all intents and purposes, and history has shown us that a lot of the greatest success I think we've ever seen in the history of American government, in terms of dealing with economic crisis, is the New Deal," he said. "That arrived largely from actions that were already started at the state and local level and were developed into national policies. I think we're in a similar paradigm right now. The local level is way ahead of the federal level in terms of addressing these issues."

While de Blasio's intention is continue and expand the New Deal heritage, Gingrich was opposed to it. Yet, he did nothing to change the basic structure of American political attitudes, which embody broad support for maintaining or expanding social spending programs in practice, even while fitfully deploring it in theory—a “schizoid” state first documented by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." They found that two-thirds of the population qualified as operationally liberal, supporting an activist federal government when asked about specific programs or responsibilities, while half the population qualified as ideological conservatives, based on questions about government interference and individual initiative. Half of all ideological conservatives even qualified also as operational liberals. For all the effort he expended, Gingrich did nothing to change this basic situation. What he did do was to significantly aggravate this disconnect, intensifying America's political dysfunction.

The story surrounding how that happened is best told by Rapoport and Stone in "Three's a Crowd." They find a direct relationship between Perot vote share in 1992 and the chances of a GOP House pickup two years later. “Only 2.2 percent of Democratic districts where Perot received 10 percent or less of the district vote flipped to the Republicans in 1994, while 42 percent of Democratic districts where Perot ran most strongly in 1992 switched to the GOP,” they write. How much did this matter? A lot: “Had Perot won the same popular vote [in 1992] as he captured in 1996 (8.4 percent, less than half of what he actually received in 1992), we estimate that the Republicans would have picked up about twenty-nine seats over what they held in 1992, leaving Democratic control intact.” That's only three seats more than the average number of seats lost by the president's party between 1946 and 1990—a negligible difference. Thus, Perot's 1992 showing was absolutely crucial to GOP success in 1994—the “Contract with America” was merely the primary means for tapping into that potential.

Looking back to 1992, Perot's affinity with the Democrats appeared stronger, once Clinton was nominated. He even withdrew from the race for a time. After the election, however, Clinton alienated Perot and his supporters, most dramatically by pushing through NAFTA, with Vice President Gore publicly debating Perot on NAFTA and treating him disdainfully in the process. Despite the fact that more Republicans than Democrats voted for NAFTA (with Gingrich playing a key role), Clinton's leadership was key, and the disrespect shown to Perot personally was emotionally most resonant. At the same time Clinton/Gore were treating Perot with contempt, Republicans were viewing him like a gold mine:

As the dynamic of third parties suggests, after Perot identified and mobilized a large constituency, both major parties bid for its support in subsequent elections. The Republicans, as the party out of power in both houses of Congress and the presidency, had the greater opportunity and incentive to appeal aggressively to the Perot constituency. Beginning with the February 1993 Republican post-election retreat, a group of Republican leaders, spearheaded by Newt Gingrich and John Kasich, established close ties with Perot and his UWSA organizations. Despite initial reluctance from other party leaders, including Bob Dole and Haley Barbour, Gingrich and his colleagues brought the Republican Party into line behind a Perot-base strategy. Most impressive in this effort was the Contract with America, which reflected both the form of Perot's checklist for candidates at the end of his book "United We Stand America" and many of the same issue priorities of Perot and his supporters, while ignoring issues—such as abortion and free trade—where differences between the GOP base and the Perot movement were sharp.

Although there were some real affinities between Republicans and Perot voters, three sharp differences are particularly illuminating in terms of fundamental deceptions that the Contract embodied. Each involves a matter of principle for Perot voters, which Gingrich and the Republicans adopted purely as matter of political expediency—and even then, not too convincingly. First was the call for term limits. As the minority party, out of power for four decades, it was an easy call for Republicans to adopt this Perot position, except when it came down to actual cases, as reported at the time:

And for some GOP incumbents the contract presents awkward contradictions. Gingrich, for instance, finds himself advocating that no House member be allowed to serve more than six terms--even as he runs for his ninth.

Asked to explain the apparent double-standard on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, he declined to say directly whether he would step down if the term-limits proposal became a reality.

"The notion that everybody who's for something has to offer to commit suicide in order for you to think they're sincere, I think is fairly outrageous," Gingrich said.

There was a similar strategic logic to adopting the Perot call for a balanced budget. It was, after all, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who had exploded the deficit like never before, so why not stick a Democratic president with the job of fixing their mess? Especially since it would mean getting Democrats to do Republican's dirty work for them? (Which some had seen as the point all along.) In this case, the hypocrisy wasn't quite so self-evident in advance. That would come after Clinton left office, and George W. Bush quickly plunged the government deeply into deficits once again.

The third point was the matter of congressional reform, two items in particular: the first to “cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third,” and the second to limit the terms of all committee chairs. While Perot supporters saw such measures in terms of making Congress more accountable to the people, Republicans had a much more clear-eyed view of things: it would make Congress more dependent on special-interest lobbyists, who would become significantly more important in the process of drafting legislation.

But for Gingrich personally, there was an additional payoff: it got rid of knowledgeable congressional staffers who readily saw through his grandiose BS. As I've noted before, this has been pointed out by Bruce Bartlett, a top economic adviser to presidents Reagan and Bush I, in a piece titled "Gingrich and the Destruction of Congressional Expertise," where he explained:

He [Gingrich] has always considered himself to be the smartest guy in the room and long chafed at being corrected by experts when he cooked up some new plan, over which he may have expended 30 seconds of thought, to completely upend and remake the health, tax or education systems.

Because Mr Gingrich does know more than most politicians, the main obstacles to his grandiose schemes have always been Congress’ professional staff members, many among the leading authorities anywhere in their areas of expertise.

To remove this obstacle, Mr Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it. When he became speaker in 1995, Mr Gingrich moved quickly to slash the budgets and staff of the House committees, which employed thousands of professionals with long and deep institutional memories....

In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations."

Of course, the GOP had decades of no-nothing history before Newt Gingrich came along. But his evisceration of congressional expertise was something without parallel in American history. Regrettably, when the Democrats did briefly regain control of the House, they did nothing significant to reverse the damage Gingrich had done. The kind of expertise that Gingrich eliminated is precisely what America needs to make sound policy decisions—on everything from WMDs in Iraq to climate change, financial regulation, community-based policing and drug policy reform. In its absence, we've had an endless parade of committees investigating Benghazi, and various other forms of clownish behavior.

Such is the extreme end result of the Contract with America. As I said above, Gingrich did nothing to change the basic structure of American political attitudes, the “schizoid” state described by Free and Cantril. Instead, he merely aggravated the schizoid disconnect. But even with that disconnect, landslide majorities still support robust social spending—the exact opposite of what our political classes have decided on. Where Gingrich aimed to confound the majority will, de Blasio aims to liberate it, by bringing together existing movements and synergizing their power to restore what still remains the dominant popular political outlook in the nation at large—a belief that government should be an instrument of the popular will, enabling us to achieve together what we cannot achieve on our own.

While this view has been present throughout our history, it achieved its modern formulation during the New Deal, and knowledge of this is reflected in de Blasio's core understanding of what he's up to, as refected in Amanda Terkel's reporting cited above. It's reflected in de Blasio's timing as well. As already noted, Gingrich's Contract was unveiled less than two months before the 1994 election, on Sept. 27, leaving no opportunity to forge any organic popular foundation. But de Blasio's announcement provides an 18-month lead time, plenty of time to build support, dialogue, revise, and forge alliances for post-electoral action.

In contrast to the Contract's evolution as a carefully calculated political document, de Blasio's 13-point agenda is much more driven by the actual content of the proposals and movements it seeks to encompass. Salon's Joan Walsh was certainly right to call attention to key missing pieces:

De Blasio was flanked by big placards supporting debt-free college and expanding Social Security, two demands that have rocketed to the top of the progressive agenda thanks to strong movements behind them. But those issues haven’t yet officially made the 13-point list. A bigger omission was any mention of criminal justice reform.

If, like Gingrich's Contract, de Blasio's lead time were less than two months, this could prove fatal. But an 18-month lead time allows for these omissions to be addressed via a much more organic process of consultation. The greater challenge will be shaping a cohesive narrative whole. As Walsh also noted, the logic of de Blasio's agenda is supported by a more detailed analysis in the Roosevelt Institute report “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy: An Agenda for Growth and Shared Prosperity,” advancing the arguments that “Inequality is not inevitable: it is a choice we make with the rules we create to structure our economy.” And this bedrock insight—that the economy is a structured human creation, which can be reshaped by structuring it differently—is the foundation on which the struggle for America's future needs to be waged.

There is nothing particularly new or radical in this view. Almost 240 years ago, in "The Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith did not blindly assume that the “invisible hand” of the market automatically produced the best outcome, as many mistakenly believe. Smith was quite aware that markets reflect the rules built into them, which in turn reflect underlying power. Hence, he wrote: “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”

Yet, the free market fantasy of a primordial pristine state has a powerful hold on the American imagination, and it plays a key role in shaping the views of ideological conservatives, which brings us back to "The Political Beliefs of Americans" again. In the last section of their book, Free and Cantril noted that “the principles according to which the majority of Americans actually behave politically have not yet been adequately formulated in modern terms,” and argued that “it is only because the American system has demonstrated such flexibility and such a capacity to accommodate to new situations that this schizoid state has not more seriously impeded the operation and direction of government.”

Two points are worth making here. The first is that what they wrote in 1967 has remained true ever since. Decades of polling, particularly the “attitudinal measures” in the General Social Survey, show slow cyclical variations, but no overall erosion of these attitudes. As noted above, broad support remains for maintaining or expanding social spending programs, even among conservatives, and Gingrich's Contract did not destroy that support.

The second point is that what Gingrich did do was to significantly impair the American system's flexibility and capacity to accommodate to new situations. Although Gingrich's narrow power-grabbing agenda quickly failed, and he left Congress only a few years later, the heightened impairment to the system's flexibility and adaptability lived on, furthering the negative consequences of the underlying schizoid state. Things have now reached such a crisis state that even the most basic, broadly supported, non-ideological forms of government spending are being crippled: spending on infrastructure, education and scientific research, spending that even the wealthiest Americans support.

Free and Cantril also said:

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people’s wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

Something along these lines is the long-term task that progressives have before us. Building movements, and drawing them together—as de Blasio and others are working hard to do—are necessary precursors. But for the long haul, we will need to go even deeper than Free and Cantril imagined, even changing the language we use to talk about economy—as the rule-governed human creation it actually is, not as something natural that's best left alone—as cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio explains in her book "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy" (my review here). Ultimately, what's needed is a fundamental reorientation in how we see ourselves as a people and a country, as well as how we see the economy. We need a new, inclusive vision, and a language that reflects the fact that America is what we make it, together: E pluribus unum.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Contract With America Editor's Picks Frank Luntz Newt Gingrich Republicans Ross Perot