Monday, December 5, 2011

Newt: The Grandfather of Gridlock?

Most of us remember Newt Gingrich as the guy who spearheaded the political insurgency in the early 1990s that first expelled the Republican congressional leadership that was too comfortable in the role of a minority party, and then led Republicans to their first House majority in forty years by teaching complacent Democrats how political hardball is played. As Speaker, he forced not one but two government shutdowns before leading the charge on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. It wasn’t long before Gingrich's congenital abrasiveness wore out the patience even of Republican colleagues.

So it’s a little amusing that, now that Newt suddenly finds himself with a shot at the Republican presidential nomination, he wants us to think of him as a kindly old uncle from a gentler time:

Consider David Axelrod’s understandable, but misguided, reaction to the spot:
“I was amused by the Newt Gingrich ad because you talked about he was going to bring the country together to solve problems,” he said. “You’re talking about the godfather of gridlock here, the guy who two decades ago really invented the kind of tactics that have now become commonplace in Washington. So this is a whole new Newt.”
Axelrod’s quite right to acknowledge Gingrich’s immense influence as a partisan tactician. More than anyone else, Newt  turned congressional/executive branch politics into a guerrilla war among straight-laced ideologues. To see his influence you only have to compare post-Newt congressional leaders like Tom DeLay and Nancy Pelosi with pre-Newt figures like Tom Foley and Robert Michel.

But does that make Newt the “godfather of gridlock”? Granted, both he and Clinton played some mean hardball.  Together, however, they managed to preside over a governing process that, among other things, generated a budgetary surplus and reformed a dysfunctional welfare system without compromising the social safety net.  The fact that hyper-partisanship didn’t get in the way of bipartisan government then should disabuse us of the ridiculous notion that it (rather than the partisans being sincerely committed to incompatible things) is what's keeping us from bipartisan government now.

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