Why Gingrich Matters

James Fallows urges the press not to pay too much attention to Newt Gingrich’s already-floundering Presidential campaign.  Comparing it to Donald Trump’s effort, he argues:

if Gingrich coverage turns into Carnival Barkers Part Deux, we’ll end up giving headline attention to disputes that have more to do with reality-show celebrity than with how Republicans will choose their issues and their candidate.

Fallows clearly has a point, but in my view he neglects Gingrich’s broader significance, and thus the reason why his campaign should undergo sustained scrutiny.  The modern Republican Party is to a great extent, Gingrich’s party.  Not because of the man himself, but rather because of “Gingrichism” — his philosophy of how to conduct politics.

The essential nature of Gingrich’s insurgency in the House and his conduct as Speaker was the destruction of the informal institutions of American governance.  By “informal institutions,” I mean those habits and customs outside of formal, written law that make democracy work.  Some things are simply not done; everyone agrees to resist the temptation for political advantage in order to make the system work.

Gingrichism is the philosophy that all means short of illegality are fair game in the struggle for political power.  He came to the fore in the House minority by personal attacks on other members’ patriotism; he stirred up the Republican base with the argument that the Democrats were not merely wrong, but evil and a threat to the Republic.  As Speaker, he destroyed the existing committee structure and bill mark-ups, did away with Congressional institutions to educate members (such as the Office of Technology Assessment or the Administrative Conference of the United States), and centralized power in the leadership.  When he did not get his way with Clinton, he cavalierly shut down the government.  Not cowed by the political disaster that ensued, he used the House’s impeachment power for political purposes and put the House Oversight Committee in the hands of Dan Burton with the express mandate to harass and cripple political opponents.  Gingrich broke institutions not by accident, but on purpose.

And if we examine the most malignant trends of the Republican Party over the last 15 years, many (although not all) of them represent this pattern of destroying institutions — and, importantly, any sense of impartiality, good faith, or nonpartisanship — for the purpose of achieving political power.  We are all arguing about who started the filibustering of judges, but it was when the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1995 that routine blocking of Presidential appointments began.  Republicans sued to prevent the counting of votes in Florida and got 5 of their hand-picked justices to go along with them.  Once ensconced in the executive branch, the Gingrichist GOP started issuing signing statements to tell its functionaries which parts of laws not to enforce; insisted that Presidential power was absolute, and ignored subpoenas.  It got rid of professionals and installed unqualified but politically loyal hacks and cronies in key positions.  Back on the Hill, Senate Republican majorities fired the Senate parliamentarian when he ruled in ways that they did not like and then shoved non-budget items into the budget to overcome filibusters.  When it lost its majority in 2006, the Republican Caucus quickly obliterated records for filibustering, attempting with great success to destroy the institution by making it completely dysfunctional.  When Barack Obama won the 2008 election, Mitch McConnell went into the complete Gingrich pose, planning to stop anything and everything offered up, refusing to negotiate in good faith, and even filibustering measures that were Republican ideas.  As for Obama himself, the Gingrichist RNC made it very clear that he was not a political opponent: like Tom Foley and the House Democratic majority, he was an enemy of the country.

Now, people are shocked, shocked, that the Republican Party is going to play games with the creditworthiness of the United States and the stability of the global economy for short-term political gain.  There is nothing new here: it is simply the replay of the Gingrichist shutting-down of the government on a broader scale. 

When Gingrich accused Obama of trying to bring about a secular-socialist coup in cahoots with Muslim extremists, he wasn’t parroting the Tea Party; he was parroting himself from 1994.  It was the Tea Party that stole his rhetoric, not the other way around.

And that is why, in my view, we cannot ignore Gingrich even if his campaign is doomed to fail.  His campaign, with all of its narcissism, mendacity, intellectual incoherence, and duplicity is the Republican Party in its purest, least adulterated form.  By looking at Gingrich we are not avoiding how the Republicans will choose their issues, or even their candidate: we are looking at their methods, ideology, goals, and tactics in their ultimate nature.

Republicans are busily distancing themselves from Gingrich now, but they cannot.  He is them.  They are him.  They see him every time they look in the mirror.