© 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 Washington beltway.

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 audience beyond.

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 candidates.
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. 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 20 years?

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 political obstacles.

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. Compromise

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 figure.

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 isn't so.

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.
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© 1996 Hedrick Smith Productions, Inc.