Practically every conversation about politics I had during the weekend with friends and associates began with them asking the same question: Isn’t Newt Gingrich the consummate insider, and therefore the antithesis of what Republican primary voters say they want this year? Well, yes and no.
The term “outsider,” which has become both a mantra and a badge of honor for GOP candidates this cycle, certainly evokes geography–distance from Washington, D.C. But it’s not solely a geographical term. Certainly Gingrich has, over the years, become quite comfortable in the district. But Gingrich’s goal was always as counterrevolutionary, not revolutionary–a distinction he felt was important to understand his role in Washington. From Steven M. Gillon’s book on the Gingrich-Bill Clinton rivalry of the ’90s:
Until the mid-1960s, Gingrich told reporters, “there was an explicit, long-term commitment to creating character. It was the work ethic, it was honesty, right and wrong, it was not harming others, it was being vigilant in the defense of liberty. It was very clear and we taught it.” All that changed beginning in 1965. “The 1960s produced a cultural civil war,” he argued, because it gave birth to a left-liberal elite, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, that espoused “a set of values” that attacked all forms of authority. The results have been obvious and pernicious….
His closest allies shared this agenda. Gingrich ally Robert Walker often served as a pro-Vietnam spokesman on campus rallies and Millersville State College. A student at the University of Houston, Tom DeLay attended antiwar rallies to shout down the protestors. Robert Livingston, whom Gingrich appointed to head the powerful Appropriations Committee, served two years in the Navy and described himself as a “counter-revolutionary.” Majority Leader Dick Armey, who earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma, summed up the sentiment of the new Republican leadership: “To me,” he said, “all the problems began in the 60s.”
This does not and should not immunize Gingrich from accusations that he has become a creature of Washington. But I think it’s an important corollary to the discussion over why Gingrich, a moderate with shifting political sensibilities, has surged so far ahead in the polls of Mitt Romney, a moderate with shifting political sensibilities. I mentioned last week that Romney lacks a record of fighting side by side with conservatives throughout his career. Gingrich obviously lacks no such experience. Here, for example, is the cover of the first-ever issue of The Weekly Standard:
People remember the battles won and the battles lost. But conservatives remember the cultural threat they saw in the Clinton administration, and a Republican victory so momentous it caused Clinton to carp “the president is relevant here” at a press conference months later. The most charming man in politics, who happened to be the leader of the free world, was all but sidelined by Newt Gingrich.
On the night of the victory, Gingrich called the Clintons “McGovernicks” and “left-wing elitists.” Then he took aim at the welfare state policies these “McGovernicks” were protecting: “They ruined the poor. They created a culture of poverty and a culture of violence which is destructive of this civilization, and they have to be replaced thoroughly, from the ground up.”
Welfare reform was proof he meant it. Gingrich has, surely, become a Washington insider. But Gingrich was, once upon a time, inside Washington the way a bull is inside a china shop. As conservatives prepare to try and turn back the latest expansion of the welfare state, it shouldn’t be too surprising just how many people have found themselves in Newt’s corner one more time.