In this issue’s Observer, I reviewed a couple of new books about The Tea Party.
One of them, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and The Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party details a half-century worth of conflict between the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP.
And the books name one figure from the 1990’s as able to bridge those differences: Newt Gingrich.
Oddly enough, one of the last occasions when moderates were able to have a decisive impact on the internal politics of the Republican Party came when they helped elect Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia as House Republican whip in 1989. Although Gingrich would lead what was considered to be a conservative “revolution,” he himself was anything but a conventional conservative. In fact, when he became involved with politics in the late 1960s, as a Ph.D. student in history at Tulane University, he was a moderate or even progressive Republican with connections to the Ripon Society. At the 1968 Republican national convention, Gingrich was one of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s strongest Southern supporters. After becoming a history professor at West Georgia State University, he narrowly missed election to Congress in 1974 and 1976, running as a moderate against a segregationalist Democrat. Most of Gingrich’s biographers have assumed that he gained election to Congress in 1978 by abandoning his former positions and converting to Southern-fried conservatism, but there’s considerable evidence that Gingrich himself did not share that view. As he told an interviewer in 1989, his goal was to build the GOP as “a caring, humanitarian reform party.” He believed that “one of the gravest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights.” He identified with “the classic moderate wing of the party, where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I’ve spent most of my life.”
Gingrich also spent a good deal of time with the conservative wing of the GOP, of course, helping to found the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) in the House and mobilizing the shock troops of the Moral Majority. But he consistently proclaimed himself a “big tent” Republican who served as a bridge between conservatives in the COS and moderates in the counterpart 92 Group and the so-called Tuesday Lunch Bunch. His view of himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican” described his preference for progressive, pragmatic reform and a more active role for government than many of his erstwhile right-wing allies were willing to contemplate. His enthusiasm for greater government involvement in technological innovation and space exploration, including much higher spending on NASA as well as the “star Wars” antimissle program, earned him the nickname “Newt Skywalker.” Gingrich’s idea-driven, eclectic, heterodox conservatism was attractive to many moderates, as were many of the specific programs he advocated such has tax cuts, welfare reform, spending reductions, decentralization, urban renewal, and improved government accountability.
Minnesota moderate Bill Frenzel nominated Gingrich for House Republican whip in 1989, and Maine’s Olympia Snowe seconded the nomination. Moderates supported Gingrich over the more conciliatory candidate of the older conservatives, Illinois’ Ed Madigan, and Gingrich carried the New England delegation by a 7 – 3 vote. “There’s no question that I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me,” Gingrich said afterwards. “I regard my election as a coalition victory for activists of all the ideological views of the Republican Party.”
Now of course, Mr. Gingrich is positioning himself as the fire-breathing conservative to differentiate himself from the man he declares to be “The Massachusetts Moderate”–Mitt Romney. But Mr. Gingrich still doesn’t quite fit the mold of a fiscal conservative (and certainly not of a social conservative, what with the wives, divorces, etc.) As Mr. Romney pointed out at a recent debate, Mr. Gingrich typically will promise federal projects in which ever state he is visiting–a moon colony in Florida where NASA is headquartered, an Interstate highway in South Carolina, a VA hospital in New Hampshire.
“This idea of going state to state and promising people what they want to hear, promising hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that’s what got us into trouble in the first place.”
And although Mr. Romney’s right-wing apostasies are more prominent, Mr. Gingrich in his role as a “big thinker” has been known to dabble in ideas that would be sacrilege to the right wing, such as cap-and-trade legislation to curb greenhouse gases and his description of Paul Ryan’s budget as right-wing social engineering.