The Magazine


Sep 13, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 48 • By DAVID FRUM
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There may be some truth to this, although one wonders whether ethics charges could really produce the 10 million vote shift of 1994. Believing in the truth of it had, however, immense consequences for the Gingrich-led conservative movement. In trying to upend the congressional Democrats through procedural victories in Congress, Gingrich directed the reforming zeal of conservatives toward the procedures of Congress. Instead of tax cuts, the building of a post-Communist world order, equal justice under law regardless of race, the cultural and linguistic unity of the United States, or any of the dozen other powerful potential issues available to them in the mid-1990s, conservatives found themselves talking about term limits, a balanced budget amendment, House members' bank, the line-item veto, and a series of other issues equally remote from Americans' everyday concerns. The logical culmination of this way of thinking was the Contract With America, which spent the energies of the biggest Republican congressional swing since 1894 on six months of votes on the internal governance of the House of Representatives.

Throughout his C-SPAN interview, Gingrich referred to his passion for "ideas." But in the procedural politics that Gingrich sold to conservatives, ideas had only a weak independent existence. (Even now, Gingrich's idea of an idea is, as he repeatedly stressed, delivering better health care at a lower cost. Until one has some notion of how the job can be done, that's an aspiration, not an idea.) Gingrich's indifference to the grand themes of a Ronald Reagan followed naturally from his approach to politics. Grand themes appeal to national electorates. Congressmen, obviously, don't have national electorates. Their electorates are particular and local. A leader who seeks to attain national power by building a congressional majority is naturally going to be inclined to shun the grand themes of a presidential candidate and instead try to identify issues that could move particular and local blocs of voters out of his opponent's coalition and into his own. That's how proposals like the repeal of the so-called marriage penalty (the higher tax rates faced by married couples with two incomes as compared to two equivalent single filers) and treating western water-use rights as private property protected by the Fifth Amendment came to move ahead of Reagan-style grand initiatives on the Republican agenda.

This made considerable tactical sense, but it left Republicans speechless and defenseless in their 1995 -- 1996 battles with Bill Clinton. As the president framed his defense of Medicare in the broad language of ideals, Republicans were left sputtering that their so-called "cuts" amounted to barely a couple of dollars a month. Clinton had a big idea about Medicare; Gingrich never did. It was the Reagan-Carter fight in reverse -- principle vs. technicalities. To this day, conservatives have not recovered from Gingrich's down-grading of thematics. In 1999, for the first time since the 1940s, there is no generally accepted conservative agenda. Conservatives have dozens, even hundreds, of projects and concepts. But the clarity and power that comes from saying first we'll do this, then we'll do that, when this and that speak to the values and interests of tens of millions of people -- that has been lost.

Because Gingrich lacked a unifying political vision of his own, he was susceptible to the sort of populism that postulates some hypothetical "will of the people" that politicians must detect and serve. This susceptibility explains why Gingrich got so caught up in fads and trends: He felt that if he squinted hard enough at them, he could detect the people's wishes. In his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, he interpreted the success of the Star Wars movies as proof that Americans yearned for a renaissance of the space program. In his 1992 speech to the Republican convention, he interpreted rising quality standards in the private sector as proof that the public had wearied of the bureaucratic welfare state. Gingrich taught a generation of conservative intellectuals to sleuth out the potential political implications of the success of particular movies, songs, and television shows. It was an amusing parlor game, but it dangerously disparaged the importance of political leadership. In truth, nothing in politics happens spontaneously -- which is why it proved such a catastrophe when Gingrich made the fateful decision in early 1998 to let the electorate lead Congress on the Lewinsky scandal, postponing action on Clinton's perjury for the eight fateful months until Ken Starr delivered his report.