The rise of Newt Gingrich from a lowly Georgia congressman to the pinnacle of power as House speaker earned him the reputation as a brilliant tactical magician with Reaganite convictions. Climbing the political heights would turn out to be an arduous task, but he had both the gray matter and the moxie to achieve his lofty ambitions.
Among the audacious and creative actions that eventually vaulted him to House leader and Republican sage: Bringing down the powerful and vindictive Democratic Speaker Jim Wright on ethical violations, exposing and curbing numerous other Democratic scandals, roundly condemning Bush ‘41 for breaking his solemn pledge never to raise taxes, and crafting the Contract with America, a conservative plan for governance that rescued the Republican Party and, some might say, made America great again.
The contract that Newt turned into a powerful Republican political weapon was awash with Reagan’s political philosophy: balanced budgets, major tax cuts for individuals, families and businesses, and a revolutionary welfare reform proposal based on Ronald Reagan’s highly successful program while governor of California. It also called for sharp increases in defense spending, including the Strategic Defense Initiative, the weapon that Democrats mercilessly mocked but which proved instrumental in convincing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War, and is presently protecting our allies in Asia and the Middle East.
On Sept. 27, 1994, more than 300 House Republican incumbents and challengers from all 50 states and the territories gathered at the U.S. Capitol steps to sign this revolutionary document, which The Washington Post accurately described as a Republican effort to revive the Reagan years. Mr. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans crisscrossed America selling its contents. And when the November results were in, Newt Gingrich and his party had stunned the political world. The Republicans gained eight seats in the Senate and 54 in the House, capturing control of the lower chamber for the first time in 40 years. Not a single Republican running for re-election lost his or her seat. The Democrats were also crushed in gubernatorial contests and state legislatures. It was an electoral rout, a signal realignment election that reinstalled Reaganism as the dominant ideology of the Republican Party.
The surge of Republican representatives was as much a support of Republicanism and Reagan conservatism as it was an indictment of liberals and President Clinton’s far left turn. It vindicated the Reagan Revolution, temporarily sidelined during Bush ‘41 and nearly forgotten in the first two years of the Clinton presidency. It showed that the Reagan policies weren’t just a passing fancy, but a central feature of conservatism.
Liberal propagandists continue to give Mr. Clinton the credit for the booming economy in the 1990s, when, in truth, it was the sweeping political triumph of Mr. Gingrich that forced the president to ditch his big tax-and-spend policies and embrace what Democrats continue to vilify as “trickle-down” economics.
Mr. Clinton governed like a lefty in those first two years, pitching massive tax hikes and spending programs. He had one critical success (with no Republican backing): a major income tax increase in 1993. But after the political earthquake produced by Mr. Gingrich, the president did a flip worthy of the Flying Wallendas. He scrapped Hillarycare, his multibillion-dollar “stimulus” program and a massive energy tax, informing the public that “the era of big government is over.” A radically weakened president now accepted policies that he had initially resisted and that Mr. Gingrich had worked so hard and long to accomplish: balanced budgets, major spending reductions, a Reagan-style welfare reform program (that lowered child poverty and blunted costs) and hefty tax cuts across the board, including a 30 percent drop in the capital gains levy.
The result: the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. Jobs exploded, wages soared, retirement accounts swelled, the stock market tripled and, miracle of miracles, more money was coming into the federal Treasury and its trust funds than was exiting. Economist Larry Kudlow would observe that the Gingrich-engineered congressional victory would permit the Republican majority to make clear to Mr. Clinton that he “would neither increase spending nor do anything further on taxes outside of cut them.” While the economy was barely crawling along in Mr. Clinton’s first two years, Mr. Kudlow noted, from 1994 to 2000, as federal spending slowed, the public debt shrunk, and the Republican tax and spending policies kicked in, “the economy again grew at over 4 percent per year with inflation stable under 3 percent.” It is this kind of growth, it should be noted, that Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress are aspiring to with their economic policies.
Mr. Gingrich served just four years as speaker, but his achievements, on any objective scale, were historic, not only because of his tactics and vision, but also because he embodied that never-give-up attitude of his hero, the Gipper. Maybe President Trump and the Republicans should look more closely at his playbook.
• Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and the author of four bestsellers on Ronald Reagan and, most recently, of the official biography of Newt Gingrich, “Citizen Newt.” (Thomas Nelson, 2017). Scott Mauer is his chief researcher.
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