The Newt Legacy

I’ve thought that Jonathan Chait’s just been excellent lately, but I have to nitpick his piece on Newt yesterday. Most of it is fine — he’s right to emphasize the importance of the revolt against George H.W. Bush’s deficit reduction package — but there’s some myth-accepting in the last paragraph that I don’t want to let pass (my emphasis):

Gingrich was a true pioneer in his recognition that the social norms that governed the behavior of the parties in Washington were an anachronism. The best way for the minority party to regain power, he understood, was a slash-and-burn campaign to discredit the majority. But the methods Gingrich pioneered were harnessed to an ideology, and that ideology retains just as strong a hold over its party today as it did when Gingrich rose to power two decades ago.

It’s certainly true that Republicans have all accepted that slash-and-burn is the way to go. The only problem? There’s really not any convincing evidence that it’s actually a successful strategy.

What happened in 1994 was complicated. Part of it was about external stuff…there was a delayed reaction in the House to the 1990 redistricting (after Democrats held tough seats in a good Democratic year in 1992), which in turn was to some extent just the eventual working out of a regional re-alignment that had been in the works for years. Part of it was just a normal midterm effect. Part of it was probably a sluggish economy. Then there’s another major part, which was Bill Clinton’s unpopularity. But was that Newt’s doing? In my view, no. One large chunk of it should be blamed on Clinton’s own miserably bad transition and first several months in office. The credit for the other large chunk should go not to Newt and radical House Republicans, but to Bob Dole and Senate Republicans. It was the Senate, and not the House, that derailed much of Clinton’s legislative agenda. And part of it, apparently, was about specific issues, but it’s not clear to me that Newt’s over-the-top, slash-and-burn rhetoric was responsible for that. Nor is it clear to me that Newt’s campaign to vilify the House ever really came to much. I suppose the House bank junk probably did push a few Members into retirement or hurt them electorally, but remember that the bank thing was in 1992, not 1994.

What Newt did brilliantly was claiming credit for the 1994 landslide. No question about that. The opportunity was there: it’s true that he was talking about a GOP takeover at a time when very few thought it was likely, either in 1994 or in the relatively near future. But they were wrong. By the 1990s, a Republican House was long overdue, and just because Newt was one of very few on the Hill to realize that (or at least to talk about it being a real possibility) doesn’t mean that he was important in making it happen.

That’s not to say that out parties shouldn’t attack the in party; of course they will, and I’d go so far as to say they should. But there’s a big difference between attacking and the Newt strategy of maximum inflated rhetoric on every possible issue and selective attacks on particular issues on which the parties actually disagree.

So, no, neither slash-and-burn nor, for that matter, the Contract with America had much to do, as far as I can see, with the 1994 landslide.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.