INTERVIEW WITH TOM
PROGRAM DIRECTOR, GOVERNMENTAL STUDIES PROGRAM
THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTE
© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.
Newt Gingrich & The Power of the Speaker
MANN: Well, Newt Gingrich never aspired to be a traditional legislator,
someone who sees a problem, drafts legislation to address that problem,
marshall a coalition and work its way through the legislative process. From
the first day he arrived in Washington after being elected in November of
1978, he outlined his strategy for transforming the Congress, for elevating
the permanent minority Republican party into the majority for building a
political apparatus whose strength was based outside the confines of the
HS: Do you remember this personally?
MANN: I do. I had a fascinating opportunity to observe Newt Gingrich and
participate in a set of discussions with him and other members of the class
of '78. And from the beginning Gingrich was different from everyone else.
He was much more ambitious, not in a narrow personal sense, but ambitious
in his quest to transform American politics as we knew it at that time.
He was always using opportunities within the House to reach a much larger
HS: Do you remember specifically in 1978--Gingrich saying, "We're going
to take over the House" and from what kind of abysmal situation the
Republicans were in at that point?
MANN: In our first discussions and the beginning of Newt's first Congress
in January or February of 1979, he outlined a strategy for elevating the
Republicans into the majority party and using the Congress, not as a traditional
legislative body, but as assembly to draw the lines of cleavage between
Democrats and Republicans so as to rally the American public to his cause.
HS: And confrontational politics were his method?
MANN: Absolutely. He thought the biggest mistake Republicans had made in
the minority was accommodating themselves to the majority party and working
with them incrementally in committee and on the floor to shape and pass
legislation. He said to cooperate in this fashion, was to give up any change
of pointing out to the larger public the fundamental differences between
Democrats and Republicans. Legislation accommodation was equivalent to masking
the differences that existed between the parties.
HS: And how did he then go about using GOPAC as you mentioned? What was
that for him as a vehicle?
MANN: What Newt did was build a farm team of potential candidates to seek
office in Washington. One of the great advantages of the Democratic part
over time has been in having the stronger farm team, the more natural pool
for recruiting candidates for office. Newt tried to deal with that Democratic
advantage by going out to the hustings. He spent a tremendous amount of
time on the road encouraging young conservatives to get active in politics
and consider running for Congress. He provided, also, a story line for them,
a script which took the form of audio tapes that he would send back to the
individuals he had met with and they could play those tapes in their cars
as they traveled around their districts. So, what he was doing was a micro
bottom up strategy of restocking the recruitment pools of potential Republican
Well, people sometimes referred to Newt Inc. because he developed a set
of organizations that had substantially prowess, everything from GOPAC,
which really, by law, had to focus on state and local activities in government.
But, he was also putting together a prominent course, a telecourse, about
renewing American civilization. I think more important than all of that
was Newt beating the bushes among conservative groups to tell them Republicans
had a chance. They really could become the majority party, that people had
to invest in them. And certainly Newt was on the road a lot, and while he
was carrying on his GOPAC activities, he was also helping candidates to
raise money. But, he also was forming alliances with his colleagues who
were running the national party committees and working as hard as he could
to demonize his opponent and excite potential donors about Republican prospects.
HS: Where does the Contract With America fit into all of his?
MANN: I think the Contract With America was a clever device, not so much
as a campaign device, as it was as a governing device. I recall speaking
to Newt Gingrich some months in advance of the '94 elections, and at that
time I was struck by his confidence about a Republican majority after the
election. I imagined it happening some time soon, but I wasn't fully confident
at that time it would happen in '94, I thought maybe '96. But Gingrich was
already planning ahead. And I think the contract was his way of converting
the American system of separation of powers into almost parliamentary-like
political system. It was the whole idea of getting Republican candidates
to commit to a platform in advance of the election, so that if victorious,
that party would have a responsibility to deliver on those promises. The
contract reinforced the idea that Republicans would not be a traditional
governing party of Washington. ...it then became the basis for Newt Gingrich
as speaker of the House for demanding loyalty among his party colleagues.
He demanded it, and he got it.
HS: What has happened under Gingrich's leadership compared to the previous
MANN: Most importantly is the centralization of power within the House and
within the majority party in the House. Term limits now exist for committee
chairs. But, I think most importantly, Newt Gingrich established the practice
of the speaker selecting who will be chairman. In most cases he accepted
the most senior member. But, on three important committees he went beyond
the senior member to pick someone else. That sent a signal to every member
of the Republican conference that Gingrich was in charge. That was the most
important change he made. There is now a very impressive staff operation
working out of the party leadership that basically sends directives to committees
about the time at which legislation should be reported. If committees report
out legislation that the speaker and members of the leadership have trouble
with, they are not afraid of intervening and overruling the committee before
it gets to the floor.
MANN: And he wasn't about to make the mistake of President Clinton and the
Democrats and the 103rd Congress and allow the most important element of
their agenda to be dispersed among committees with a claim over jurisdiction.
He took it upon himself to constitute a task force primarily of one. It
was Newt Gingrich. He decided he would do the work to put together the package
of changes that would constitute the Medicare component of the balanced
budget plan for the Republican party.
He's a smart man and a quick study and he understood quickly both the substantive
problems of doing it, but equally important, perhaps more important, the
The New Republican Majority
MANN: Behind the Republican revolution is a very explicit public philosophy,
an ideology, about the role of government in our lives, about the relative
power of the federal government versus state and local government, about
the importance of using public resources to instill conservative social
values. This is, I think, a fairly coherent public philosophy and it lies
behind much of what the Republicans are doing right now.
HS: The Republican freshman have been an incredibly important part of Gingrich's
army. What are they like? Are they driving Gingrich or is he driving them?
MANN: I think the 73 Republican freshmen constitute the most consequential
class in many decades. I think more consequential than the Watergate class
of Democrats in 1974. They are peculiar in the sense that they seemingly
don't want things that politicians usually want. That is to say, they have
more limited ambitions as far as spending a career in the House of Representatives.
They viscerally resist the whole notion of career politicians, business
as usual. They have more of an ideological edge. They're convinced they
know what the country needs, what the public wants, and they're not about
to sell themselves out to Washington interests. They know that they provided
the margin for this Republican majority in the House -- the first in 40
years. Newt Gingrich has helped produce that class, both in a micro-sense
of recruiting many of them to run for office, but in a macro-sense of setting
the conditions under which they might succeed. And they understand that.
They know that he is largely responsible for their class being in the House
of Representatives right now. So they are very much -- sort of loyal to
him and supportive of him. On the other hand, they see him as someone who's
been in politics for a long time and who might want to compromise with more
established interests, and therefore they are determined to help him by
maintaining their edge, by constantly putting pressure on him.
HS: Is there daylight between Gingrich leadership and the freshman?
MANN: There has to be some daylight between the leadership and the freshmen
because the leadership represents the entire conference and not just the
freshmen. The leadership has let it be known that they expect the freshmen
at times to just say no. Its caused them some problems getting the appropriations
bills through in a timely fashion. Its been a little embarrassing when they've
demanded that the leadership reverse decisions they've made regarding personnel.
But in general, what the freshmen are saying is that our loyalty is not
to the leaders as individuals, but to the agenda that the leadership is
fighting for. And if we see the leadership straying from that agenda, we're
going to pull back.
HS: Talk about the difficulties between the House and the Senate?
MANN: No question that the House and the Senate are very different legislative
institutions. The House is a majoritarian body. If you have a majority in
your own party you can work your will. The rules permit it. But the Senate
doesn't allow that. It's a highly individualistic body where the threat
of a filibuster and the use of holes requires the so-called leaders to be
very deferential to individual Senators. It's also the case that because
of this highly individualized body, those moderate members, and especially
moderate Senators -- and there are a group of 6 to 10 so-called moderate
Senators -- are in a position to work their will on the decisions of that
body. And occasionally those moderates have been very unhappy with the conservative
edge to legislation coming out of the House of Representatives. Bob Dole
has had to deal with that situation. At times it means moderating the legislation
and then trying to work it out in conference. At times it's absolutely rejecting
some of the riders that Republicans in the House have put on legislation
having to do with abortion or the environment or restricting the ability
of non-profit organizations to lobby the government. The Senate has, at
times, been a yellow light of caution and at times a red light, saying no,
we're not going to take that part of it.
White House and Congress: Confrontation vs.
HS: Can Gingrich remain a combative leader and then still shift gears when
the moment calls for compromise?
MANN: It's a very difficult thing to do and let it be said that the Republicans
made a serious tactical error in initiating a premature confrontation with
the president over the budget before they had passed their appropriations
bill and reconciliation bill. They actually thought they could improve their
bargaining position for the main event by forcing the president to agree
to some terms attached to either the debt ceiling increase or the continuing
resolution on appropriations to keep the government going. That's the challenge
that Newt Gingrich has. I'm convinced the Republicans over-reached, that
they over-read their '94 mandate as much as Bill Clinton over-read his mandate
in 1992. Newt Gingrich can excite a meeting of the Republican conference,
can stimulate a meeting of Washington businessmen, but when it comes to
the broader public, he's clearly an acquired taste. I think many Americans
find him arrogant and bombastic and uncivil. And therefore, he's not a popular
Presidency: Power and Myth
HS: Is the Presidency a weaker office than Bill Clinton thought it was when
he came in?
MANN: I think most presidents, most new presidents, over-estimate the power
of the office they have just won. And certainly for Bill Clinton, I think
there was an over-estimation of what he could do in office with a nominal
Democratic majority in control of the House and the Senate. Part of the
problem is the end of the Cold War, the diminished need for a national security
president. I think it's inevitable that some power will shift back to the
Congress, but just as importantly has been broader changes in the strength
and the nature of the political parties. The old New Deal Democratic coalition
that dominated our politics and government for a half century is largely
dead, and the Republican coalition is building and gaining strength. It's
not obvious that they will become the dominant party, but they certainly
have an opportunity to do so.
HS: Why do most Presidents overestimate the power of the office?
MANN: It's, first of all, the hoopla of presidential elections, the intense
focus on the individual, not the party; it's the individual who self --
recruits himself to seek the nomination and then the presidency, and all
of the attention focused on it. It's partly the fact that the president
is the only public official elected by the entire country, so that person
has that particular status. I think it also comes out of the background
of Franklin Roosevelt's aggressive leadership in the depths of the Depression,
and then in leading the country into World War II and the development of
the Cold War, after Roosevelt died, and the emergence of a national security
state. And the possibility of nuclear confrontation, and the president's
ability to press the button that initiates a nuclear holocaust. There is
no question but that we have a mythology about the presidency; we imagine
that he leads the government, that he sets the agenda and drives the agenda
for legislation affecting the domestic affairs of this country. And it just
There were two presidents that had brief moments of extraordinary legislative
influence that Clinton can't hope to match: One was Lyndon Johnson, in the
period of '64-'65; the other was Ronald Reagan, at the very beginning of
his presidency, when he got approved a budget that basically transformed
the agenda and the conversation of Washington for a decade. Bill Clinton's
record, in 1993, would be seen as one of the more productive, during this
35-40 year period Substantial legislative accomplishments, not breakthroughs,
not a completely new direction, but frankly substantial support in the Congress,
from his own party members, some bipartisan achievements, most importantly
NAFTA, but a record of accomplishment he could be proud of. The problem
was not '93, it was '94. Because in '94 everything revolved around his national
health reform, and as you know, that went nowhere, and came to represent
the productivity of that entire Congress, but even more importantly, emboldened
the Republicans to follow a scorched-earth strategy at the end of that Congress,
and kill every legislative initiative, even those that had enjoyed bipartisan
support, leaving the president with a very meager record, and a public perception
that he was simply unable to make Washington work.
© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.