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Newt Gingrich and the 104th Congress

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By MATTHEW REES
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Once the Republicans walked into the balancedbudget trap, however, it was almost inevitable that their Boy Scout-like earnestness would be trumped by Democratic deceits. Take the proposal for Medicare reform. When it was first presented to GOP chairman Haley Barbour in February 1995, he strongly advised delaying action until after the presidential election. Barbour recognized the political sensitivity of scaling back spending on health care for the elderly. But he was rebuffed by Gingrich, who rightly saw Medicare as a budgetary time bomb but wrongly believed Medicare was not sacrosanct in the way Social Security was. "If we calmly and methodically execute, we're going to do fine," Gingrich told Elizabeth Drew. "I mean, people are going to look back on this and say, 'That must have been easy.'"

Gingrich did do a masterful job of persuading powerful interest groups like the American Association of Retired Persons not to make a fuss about the proposed $ 270 billion in Medicare savings. He expended an inordinate amount of energy on getting reporters not to use the word "cut" to describe the savings since they were actually "reductions in the rate of increase." But it was hubristic to believe there would be little or no cost to taking on a popular entitlement.

At first, there was little response from voters, and Republicans thought they were really on to something. But they learned better in November, when it came time to pass an interim spending bill to keep the government running. House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer insisted that a temporary increase in Medicare premiums be added to the bill for arcane government bookkeeping reasons. This gave Clinton the opening to veto the bill, which shut the government down for the first time. Gingrich wised up. He wanted to get rid of the premium increase almost immediately, but came under enormous pressure to keep it in from Republican freshmen enraged at Clinton's shameless milking of the shutdown (remember the closing of the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore?) .

The more fundamental problem was the Republican negotiating strategy on the overall budget for 1996. The Republicans were so convinced of their righteousness and annoyed at Clinton's dissembling that they became ever more aggressive; they began with "no compromise" and moved quickly to "we'll close the government if we don't get what we want."

"If I were doing it all over again, we would consciously avoid the government shutdown," Gingrich recently told the Washington Post. "It was clearly a mistake." Still, before things turned sour, the GOP's obstinacy did yield some remarkable progress. Clinton began 1995 with no intention of supporting a balanced budget, advancing a proposal with $ 200 billion deficits for eternity. When Clinton's budget was brought to a vote in the Senate, not a single Democrat supported it.

Clinton later introduced a budget that would reach balance in 10 years and continued to move gradually toward the Republican position. On November 19, he said he would do what he and congressional Democrats had steadfastly maintained they would never do: agree to the Republican demand that any budget proposal reach balance by the year 2002, as judged by the Congressional Budget Office.

This was a monumental achievement and should have been credited as a victory for the GOP. But Republicans enjoyed no political advantage from pulling Clinton rightward; indeed, they were promptly declared the losers and by a 2-1 margin were blamed for the two government shutdowns. Gingrich now says he miscalculated in thinking Clinton would cave in to the Republicans and sign a balanced budget then and there. But that analysis is a miscalculation too: Clinton did support a balanced budget, just not the balanced budget Republicans wanted him to support. The real miscalculation was the failure of House and Senate Republicans to split the difference between the Clinton budget and the GOP budget, declare victory, and go home. The blame for this does fall squarely on the shoulders of Gingrich and the 73 freshmen (though even Bob Dole cautioned in September 1995 that "this will not be an autumn of compromise").

Gingrich's obduracy during the budget negotiations is forgivable -- the administration's conduct really was appalling throughout -- but that can't be said of the weird mistake he made on November 15 with an improvised remark that probably did the greatest long:term damage to him and his party. At a breakfast with reporters, Gingrich foolishly revealed that he had sent the White House a "tougher" interim spending bill than he had originally thought he would, out of pique. Clinton had refused to negotiate on the flight back from the Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, Gingrich said, and then made Republicans exit out the back door of Air Force One.

Gingrich was asking for a spanking, and he got one: "CRY BABY," screamed the New York Daily News the next day, complete with a sketch of Gingrich in a diaper. There's no exaggerating the importance of Gingrich's quip. It transformed what appeared to be a principled disagreement over government spending into a petty political dispute and crystallized national opposition to the Republican budget effort.

Lost in the flurry of attention to the gaffe was an equally embarrassing comment Gingrich made the same morning: "The public relations fight [over the budget] is easy. That's why we've ignored it." There's a word for that: hubris. The last two years have offered a daily reminder that virtually any political undertaking requires not just a precise legislative strategy but also an understanding of how to deal with deceitful attacks on your ideas.

Republicans certainly could not have anticipated the $ 35 million attack from Big Labor; it was unprecedented. But GOP strategists realize that they lacked the all-important firepower of outside interest groups to make the case for them on issues like the balanced budget and Medicare. It wasn't for lack of trying; countless appeals were made to an array of business groups that were asked to fund an aggressive advertising campaign. Ask top Republicans today about corporate groups like The Coalition or the Business Roundtable, and you'll be greeted with a string of expletives or sighs of disappointment. During the shutdowns, the House GOP leaders sought to coordinate a business-funded advertising campaign, but they only managed to raise a fraction of what they wanted. "Big business fell down on the job," says Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary.

That's not entirely fair. Both business types and party activists worked their hearts (and wallets) out on the Contract With America. Their resources and their enthusiasm were burned out by the time the first hundred days came to an end. They were further depressed by the fact that after all their work, only two of the nine items had actually been signed into law. This suggests another reason why the too-much-too-soon strategy was so misguided, and why we shall not see its like again.

Gingrich failed to understand that political enthusiasm is not in inexhaustible supply. It has to be replenished. It needs victories, not just battles.

So bruised by the experience of 1995 were Republicans that they capitulated to Clinton in September and passed a flurry of legislation -- including a $ 6 billion spending increase and new health-care mandates -- they would have laughed at the year before. It was a triumph for GOP moderates and liberals, and a sobering reminder that politicians in trouble always resort to the government checkbook to find a way out. "I think the next two years will be like the last six months of the 1996 session," liberal Republican representative Jim Leach told the Washington Post last week. That would be unfortunate too.

And yet, when all is said and done, Republicans did maintain their hold on Congress and did reshape Washington's political environment in their favor. The challenge now is for Republicans to apply the lessons of the past two years to the next two: Walk, do not run, to the nearest realignment.

By Matthew Rees