From Gingrich to McCarthy, the Roots of Governance by Chaos
Mr. Gingrich began the zero-sum politics that mutated into the brand of the Tea Party and Trump M.A.G.A. Republicans and that presaged the raucous speaker battle in the House.
Jan. 7, 2023Updated 2:49 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich was disdainful.
After watching days of House Republicans failing to elect a speaker, Mr. Gingrich, the most famous of all recent G.O.P. House speakers, vented about the hard-right holdouts, among them Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.
“There’s no deal you can make with Gaetz,” Mr. Gingrich said in an interview Thursday night. “He’s essentially bringing ‘Lord of the Flies’ to the House of Representatives.”
In contrast, Mr. Gingrich said of his own speakership, which sought a revolt in the Republican Party and the way Washington does business, “We weren’t just grandstanders. We were purposeful.” He would be glad to show the current rebels how to do it, he said. “But anything that takes longer than waiting for their cappuccino, I doubt they’re interested in.”
History does not precisely remember it that way. It is true that Mr. Gingrich’s tenure from 1995 through 1998 produced several legislative accomplishments, including two balanced budgets signed into law by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. But to both Democrats and Republicans, the jut-jawed intransigence of House Republicans opposing Representative Kevin McCarthy’s ultimately successful bid to be speaker did not materialize out of nowhere.
Instead, Mr. Gingrich’s triumph in 1994 in wresting the House from a Democratic majority for the first time since 1952 was the starting point for the zero-sum brand of politics that mutated into the Tea Party movement, the grievance-based populism of the Trump era, and what was garishly displayed on the House floor in a raucous four-day speaker battle that ended in the small hours of Saturday.
Those mutations have culminated in a tissue-thin Republican majority, auguring legislative episodes likely long on melodrama and short on happy endings, thanks to cameo actors such as Mr. Gaetz who have already demonstrated their zeal to seize the spotlight from the new speaker. Such actors appear to interpret their roles as opposing anything that the Biden administration might support, including sending military aid to Ukraine and avoiding a default on government obligations by raising the federal debt ceiling.
The bitterly partisan stalemates of the Gingrich era may well have metastasized into a state of governance by chaos.
Electing a New Speaker of the House
Representative Kevin McCarthy won the speakership after a revolt within the Republican Party triggered a long stretch of unsuccessful votes.
- A Tenuous Grip: By making concessions to far-right representatives, Mr. McCarthy has effectively agreed to give them carte blanche to disrupt the workings of the House — and to hold him hostage to their demands.
- Scene on the Capitol: Even by the heated standards of the tensions that flared among House Republicans during their four-day push to elect a speaker, what happened on Jan. 6 stood out.
- Fears on Debt Limit: An emboldened conservative flank and the concessions made to win far-right votes could lead to a protracted standoff on the critical fiscal issue that could cause economic pain.
- A Eerily Similar Showdown: The parallels between a drawn-out clash for speaker in 1923 and the current one suggest that not much has changed in Congress over a century.
“They’re employing the old Gingrich argument that you don’t get any benefit from cooperation or compromise, only from confrontation,” said Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, until recently the Democrats’ House majority leader. Mr. Hoyer, who was sworn into office in 1981, two years after Mr. Gingrich, recalled the Georgia congressman “playing to the anger and disaffection of people who Nixon called ‘the silent majority’ a few years earlier.”
“Those feelings predated Gingrich,” Mr. Hoyer said. “But he took extraordinary advantage of them, just as Trump did later and just as this crowd’s doing now.”
It was Mr. Gingrich, after all, who as a congressional candidate in 1978 told an audience, “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” A decade later, Mr. Gingrich coached his colleagues to cast the opposition as “the loony left,” saying, “When in doubt, Democrats lie.”
A decade after that, in 1998, Mr. Gingrich oversaw a multimillion-dollar ad blitz focusing on Mr. Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, while also telling supporters, “I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic.”
Mr. Gingrich’s arrival in Washington in 1979 happened to coincide with the installation that same year of C-SPAN’s cameras inside the House chamber, enabling once-obscure members of Congress to reach a national audience with combative monologues that dragged on into the night. “Gingrich was the one who understood how to use the C-SPAN cameras,” said Mark Sanford, a Republican member of the 1994 class. “And I’d say that was one of the tools that over time helped coarsen the process and led to this increasing degree of militarism we’re seeing.”
Though Mr. Gingrich and his two lieutenants, Dick Armey, the House majority leader, and Tom DeLay, the majority whip, preached ruthless partisanship, in the end, Mr. Gingrich was forced out of power by his fellow Republicans in 1998 after agreeing to a budget deal with Mr. Clinton. The party lost the House majority in 2006, “though frankly, even before then, the Gingrich faction did not feel that they had won when George W. Bush won, because they weren’t interested in his ‘compassionate conservatism,’” Mr. Hoyer recalled.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 thrust Mr. Gingrich back into relevancy. On the night of Mr. Obama’s inauguration, the former speaker gathered at a Washington steakhouse with a small group of desultory Republicans that also included a second-term congressman from California, Kevin McCarthy. It was Mr. McCarthy who, consulting his inner Gingrich, urged a hyperaggressive approach to Democratic control in Washington.
“We’ve got to challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign,” he told the steakhouse group that night.
Mr. Gingrich left the dinner feeling much encouraged. “You will remember this day,” he said to the others.
The seeds of the Tea Party movement were sown by discontents among a threatened white majority, or what Mr. Trump later called “the forgotten men and women of this country.” Initially framed as a nonpartisan call for fiscal discipline, the Tea Party avatars returned the Republicans to power in the House after the 2010 midterm election and quickly reverted to Gingrichian partisanship.
“The Tea Party movement was more about fighting the Obama administration, Pelosi and Reid,” said a member of that class, Representative Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina.
But, as both an echo of what Mr. Gingrich encountered in 1998 and a harbinger for the present G.O.P. intramural brawling, several restive ultraconservatives set their sights on their elected leaders. In 2015, they effectively forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner. Three dozen of them, including Mr. Duncan, formed the House Freedom Caucus, a band of hell-no fiscal hard-liners that seemed to exist mainly to inconvenience their party leaders until 2017, when that leader happened to be President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. McCarthy, who was then the House majority leader, predicted that the Freedom Caucus would not be able to stand up to Mr. Trump.
“There’s not a place for them to survive in this world,” he told me.
He was wrong. In a matter of months, the Freedom Caucus repurposed itself as a populist fight club of Trump mini-me’s, albeit one that did not always appear to be strategically sound. “The one problem I’ve had with the Freedom Caucus was that they didn’t often define in advance what a win looks like,” Mr. Duncan said. “At some point, you’ve got to be willing to get to a yes.”
Among their new members in 2017 was Mr. Gaetz, a freshman from Florida. Mr. Duncan wryly noted that Mr. Gaetz’s supporting cast in the revolt against Mr. McCarthy included 11 members who are either freshmen or have served only one term.
“They don’t know how to operate in the majority, and they’re just listening to what others say about these rules changes,” Mr. Duncan said. “And then when Kevin’s given them 90 percent of what they’ve asked for, they’ve moved the goal posts.” Ultimately, Mr. Gaetz did give way, slightly, to Mr. McCarthy in the 14th vote and again in the 15th final vote early Saturday, when he voted “present” both times, rather than no.
Until the fight over the speakership, Mr. Gaetz’s biggest ally in the House has been Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, an unflagging Trump loyalist who this past week helped cajole the former president into putting his support for Mr. McCarthy in writing. In an interview Friday afternoon before the House reconvened for two more rounds of voting, Ms. Greene said that she decided to back Mr. McCarthy’s bid for speaker several months ago, when he signaled his willingness to support hard-line fiscal stances, including not raising the debt ceiling unless certain conditions are met.
She was less enthusiastic about the conduct of Mr. Gaetz and another member of the Republican “Never Kevin” brigade, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
“Kevin’s said these things in conference,” Ms. Greene said. “But Matt never goes to conference, and if Lauren Boebert’s ever there, she’s just sitting there tweeting on her phone.”
As the G.O.P. dissidents huddled Friday with team McCarthy in search of a deal that would dilute the new speaker’s power, Ms. Greene observed that this was exactly the kind of back-room scheming that the group purported to abhor. “It’s pure ego,” she said of the Never Kevin brigade.
Mr. Gingrich, for his part, takes a relatively cheery long view of his party’s machinations. “I ran three times before I won on the third race,” he said. “We spent 16 years in the House trying for the majority before we finally won it.”
And for the current G.O.P., he said, “we’re in a period where everything’s going to be very hard.”