House GOP turmoil: lessons Newt learned the hard way

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich alienated colleagues by centralizing enormous power in the speakership. But going too far in the other direction could be worse.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
House Republicans arrive for a party caucus meeting at the US Capitol in Washington on Friday. On Thursday, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California stunned his colleagues by opting not to run for speaker. Now, the hunt is on for a plausible replacement.

In the tumult surrounding Kevin McCarthy’s surprise decision to withdraw from the speakership race, House Republicans ought to consult the memoir of a former speaker. In "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," Newt Gingrich reflected on his bumpy tenure as the chamber’s top officer. Like most of Gingrich’s writings, this 1998 book contained large dollops of self-aggrandizement and partisan boilerplate. But it also showed flashes of self-awareness, in which Gingrich recognized various ways in which he and has GOP colleagues had blundered.

Soon after the 1994 midterm election gave the GOP its first House majority in 40 years, Gingrich started getting in trouble for controversial comments. In the book, he said that because the leap to the speakership had happened so suddenly, “everything seemed a little unfamiliar to me.” If you rarely get media coverage, he explained, “you have a lot of leeway to make mistakes. But when you are in people’s living rooms every evening, your mistakes are magnified.”

If McCarthy had absorbed that lesson before doing his interview with Sean Hannity, he might have avoided a lot of trouble. Instead, by suggesting that the Benghazi hearings were all about discrediting Hillary Clinton, he handed Democrats a political weapon and raised serious doubts about his own communication skills. The next speaker has to realize that he or she will be the GOP’s top spokesperson, at least until the party settles on a presidential nominee. When the speaker misspeaks, Democratic opposition researcher will spread the gaffe through social media faster than you can say “mistakes were made.”

Though the current turmoil is unusual, the House Republicans have always been a fractious bunch. “Sometimes to our sorrow,” Gingrich wrote, “we expect our members to disagree with us.” He alienated his colleagues by centralizing enormous power in the speakership. But the next speaker should also be leery of backbench members who want to go too far in the other direction. Said Gingrich: “The need to devise a proper strategy is made even more daunting by the number of key players who must be in on it.”

If you think the House is gridlocked now, just wait for leadership-by-committee.

Boehner had to deal with unrealistic expectations about what he could accomplish. His successor – along with rank-and-file members who are looking for political miracles – should pay special attention to Gingrich’s experience with bicameralism and the separation of powers.

In the 1994 Contract with America, House Republicans promised to bring an ambitious legislative agenda to the floor of the chamber. They kept their promise, but getting their proposals into the law books was another matter. The Senate filibuster effectively requires a 60-vote majority to pass most major bills. Just as they are today, Senate Republicans were several seats short of being able to force their will. As Gingrich said, “every new representative has a lot to learn about the ways of senatorial obstruction.” 

The Republican revolutionaries of 1995 also learned about the veto. “Even if you pass something through the House and Senate, there is that presidential pen. How could we have forgotten that?” When Bill Clinton vetoed legislation funding a large part of the government, House Republicans figured that they would win the showdown. “It should have been obvious to us that the Democrats had polling information reassuring them that the public favored their rhetoric in this fight, but it wasn’t,” wrote Gingrich. “We not only lost the battle over the legislation itself, but the far more important one for the public’s understanding and approval of what we were trying to do.”

There is an old saying that the foolish learn from their own mistakes, whereas the wise learn from the mistakes of others. House Republicans should mull over Gingrich’s admitted mistakes, and be wise in their future decisions

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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