Monday, November 15, 2004

A Parable for Our Times: The Rise and Fall of Newt Gingrich

November 13 / 14, 2004
A Parable for Our Times: The Rise and Fall of Newt Gingrich

The 1994 elections marked the biggest Republican victory in a generation. Led by right-wing ideologue Newt Gingrich, the GOP took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years--in what was known as the "Republican Revolution."

In the House, Republicans made a net gain of 52 seats for a comfortable majority. In the Senate, nine seats swung to the Republicans. Well-known Democratic power brokers like House Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo were beaten by relative unknowns. Plus, reactionary ballot measures like California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and a Georgia "two-strikes-and-you're-out" sentencing referendum won by overwhelming margins.

Gingrich claimed that the election results represented a "political sea change"--and a mandate for the Republican right. He vowed to pass the Contract with America--a 10-point program of right-wing proposals that included tax cuts for the rich, welfare "reform," harsh restrictions on government spending and various other items that had been on the Republican wish list for years--within the first 100 days of their reign.

The mainstream media hung on every word from the Gingrichites and produced countless stories familiar to us today--about how the Republicans would be free to do whatever they wanted in Washington for years to come.

It didn't turn out that way. Not a single bill from the Contract with America became law. The popularity of the Republicans steadily faded. And Newt Gingich, the leader of the "revolution," became the most hated man in American politics.

In reality, the Republican victories in the 1994 elections didn't represent a "political sea change." They were a protest vote against the Clinton administration that had taken over the White House two years before.

Clinton won the presidency by capitalizing on widespread hope for "change" after 12 years of Republican rule. But he didn't deliver on anything he promised. Two years into the Clinton presidency, most people didn't feel that their lives had improved. Shortly before the 1994 election, the centerpiece of Clinton's campaign--the promise to enact health care reform--collapsed in the face of Republican opposition and Clinton's own willingness to bargain away his proposals.

The disillusionment with Clinton provided openings for Republicans to exploit voters' angers and fears. On Election Day, the demoralized Democratic base stayed home--while Republicans turned out their supporters in large numbers.

But the Gingrichites confused this anti-Clinton vote with a "mandate" from voters to impose right-wing policies. Once the Republicans' hit list of attacks on workers and the poor was unmasked, it sparked a backlash....