After Newt Gingrich rose in the polls, criticism of the former House speaker began grabbing headlines. But Republican establishment attacks on Newt are not new. Newt’s political career has been devoted to mounting a conservative challenge to the establishment’s desire to play the Washington power game of go along to get along.
As a junior congressman, Newt founded the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS), a group of activist members of Congress whose goal was to challenge the liberal welfare state but whose first target was the Republican establishment in the House of Representatives. The “old bulls” who dominated the party in the House had become quite comfortable in their minority status and saw little chance they would ever become a majority.
Newt and the COS knew that, to create a true conservative agenda, the party needed to focus on becoming a majority. We used the House floor and C-SPAN to promote our ideas. We attacked spending bills and efforts to expand government, some of which the establishment had endorsed. It reacted by telling newly elected members to stay away from those COS guys because they are trouble.
Newt really stirred up establishment backlash by taking on then-Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, for ethics violations. The further Newt pushed his case against Wright, the more uncomfortable establishment leaders became. When Newt won, they leaned more toward agreeing with Wright’s characterization of the result as “cannibalism” rather than seeing it as a victory for Republicans against a n increasingly corrupt majority.
In 1989 Newt scored a stunning victory over the establishment candidate to win the job of Republican whip. It was a hard-fought battle decided by one vote. But that victory meant that the party was moving toward a conservative activist profile, shedding its passive minority attitude.
Newt really upset the establishment when he refused to go along with the tax increases that had been engineered in negotiations between Congress and the George H.W. Bush administration. Party leaders put him on the negotiating team in an effort to neutralize him. Instead, Newt made it clear that he would not accept tax increases and his message to President Bush was that tax increases would destroy his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge. When the negotiations produced new taxes, Newt refused to sign on and led the Republican opposition to the settlement in the House. To this day, establishment figures harbor a grudge against Newt for not joining their “revenue enhancement” conspiracy.
When the 1994 election seemed likely to produce significant Republican gains in the House and Senate, it was Newt who engineered the Contract With America. He saw the need for a conservative governing document because he believed we would become a majority with the power to change the course of policy toward conservative values. Many of those values were spelled out in the contract, which included the legislation we intended to pass. Much of the establishment opposed the contract, believing it was too specific and would subject us to criticism that might cost us victories. The real story was the angst from the establishment about the conservative reforms evident in the contract. Most eventually signed on, only because many of them still believed we would never get a majority and therefore would not have to act on the contract’s provisions.
When Newt became speaker, he was focused, disciplined and tough. He insisted on moving the Contract With America intact. He abolished committees and denied “old bulls” chairmanships. He insisted on using the majority to win conservative victories such as balancing budgets, achieving welfare reform and producing 11 million new jobs with tax cuts that spurred economic growth. He made some people unhappy when he pursued legislation that could win instead of pet bills that would have divided Republicans rather than uniting them. And he negotiated with a Democratic president to get t he conservative legislation being passed signed into law. Some Republicans were left unhappy in the wake of all of that activity — some of them are still complaining today.
While Newt has been a part of the Washington scene for some time, he always has been the outsider challenging the establishment and insisting on reforms and transformation. He has been vilified, targeted with ethics complaints, subjected to lies and mythology. Millions of dollars have been spent on attacks against him. And he’s still standing, offering America the kind of ideas and leadership it needs in the 21st century.
It boils down to this: Newt Gingrich is a conservative; the establishment prefers moderates. Newt prefers to stand up and debate conservative ideas and ideals; the establishment prefers to keep people guessing. Newt is a proven leader, someone with the background, understanding, vision and discipline to be our president; the establishment fears that he just might win.
Robert S. Walker, executive chairman of the public policy firm Wexler & Walker, represented Pennsylvania’s 16th District in the U.S. House from 1977 to 1996. He is an unpaid adviser to the Gingrich campaign.