The Unlikely Face of Reform - Newt Gingrich has recreated himself as Washington’s agent of change. Can he persuade the GOP to shift its agenda?
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is doing what he does best, tossing out oversized ideas that grab media attention. There’s too much money influencing legislation, so Newt suggests banning all fundraising in the Washington metropolitan area. That will never happen, but Newt is on to something.
He understands that voters are disgusted with both parties. The polarized model of politics we have today is ready to implode with the revelations of influence peddling on a scale not seen since the days of Teapot Dome oil field scandal rocked the Harding administration more than 80 years ago. Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to two sets of federal indictments this week, and his tentacles touch almost every place within Republican circles.
He has recreated himself as a bipartisan reformer, running against the party he brought to power in 1994 and decrying the GOP’s corruption with the same zeal he expressed against Democrats. Next to John McCain, who embodies the reform agenda and exposed Abramoff’s bilking of Indian tribes in Senate hearings, Gingrich is the face of reform in Washington. That is an astonishing development when you consider the circumstances that led to Gingrich leaving his leadership post in the House. Ethics questions about a lucrative book deal followed by a failed coup staged by his fellow Republicans forced him out.
For Gingrich, this is personal. Among the coup-plotters was Tom DeLay. There’s been bad blood between them for years. DeLay never bought into the reform agenda. The result of his disregard for the niceties separating money and politics means that it’s taken the Republicans just 10 years in power to reach the same level of corruption it took the Democrats 40 years to achieve. Now it’s Newt’s turn to say ‘I told you so.’
In the mid-1980s, when the Democrats controlled the House, California Democrat Tony Coelho tried to impose party discipline, checking lobbyist donations and leveraging access with donor lists. But many Democrats were uncomfortable cozying up to the business community. They didn’t share the same views, and they didn’t like the hardball tactics. When the Republicans took over the House in 1994, they found the nexus between lobbying and money a much easier fit. The free-market ideology of the Republicans dovetailed with the business community’s wish to deregulate. The contributions flowed, and legislation reflected the close kinship.
What we have now is a perversion of conservatism with the free-market banner becoming an excuse for greed. Marshall Wittmann, a conservative activist turned centrist, attended the first meeting in 1993 hosted by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, to rally conservatives of different stripes around a common agenda. “There were about a dozen of us wanting to stop this or that Clinton plan,” says Wittmann. “When the Mariana Islands came up, I wondered how did this become a conservative issue?” The Northern Mariana Islands were the first big project that Norquist and Abramoff worked on together. An American protectorate in the Pacific Ocean, the government there wanted help to resist certain U.S. laws, like paying minimum wage. Norquist talked up the Marianas as a model of free enterprise, and Abramoff collected $9 million in lobbying fees, smoothing the way for members of Congress to take fact-finding trips to the islands and play golf.
“It was the first time I scratched my head and thought there’s something amiss here,” Wittmann told NEWSWEEK. “The seeds that were planted then developed into the fauna and flora we have now.” The weekly strategy sessions hosted by Norquist have become an institution in Washington. Known as “the Wednesday meetings,” they attract dozens of conservative activists and thinkers. White House adviser Karl Rove is a regular attendee.
The web of connections that propelled everybody around the table to power is now threatening to bring them down. Among those made most nervous by Abramoff’s decision to tell all has got to be Norquist, who has worked closely with Abramoff since he managed his campaign to become chairman of College Republicans in 1981. When the GOP took over the Congress in ’94, Abramoff abandoned his career as a producer of B-grade movies in Hollywood to link up with Norquist and capitalize on his Republican connections.
The college revolutionaries had come full circle, accumulating power and status to the point where they were the new Republican establishment. Not everybody in the party was happy. A handful of House Republicans who Wittmann calls “the new Newts” are tired of the dictatorial way the House is run and think the emphasis on pay-to-play politics is a perversion of Republican principles. The new Newts are pushing for a whole new leadership team while the old Newt plays the Pied Piper from the outside, says Wittmann.
The Democrats are not associated with cleaning up Washington. They’ve got a package of reforms, but no reformer to lead the way. Gingrich is urging his party to pick up the reform mantle. If they do, it will be a triumph of political cross-dressing.