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Gingrich Weighs in on Trump, Boehner and Changing GOP

Newt Gingrich doesn’t see a viable threat to John A. Boehner’s gavel, but the intra-GOP angst with the current House speaker as well as Donald Trump’s rise in the presidential race expose a party at a crossroads.

“I think you have a Republican Party that’s in the midst of very substantial change,” Gingrich told CQ in an interview. “That’s why you see Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the polls.”

The former House speaker and architect of the 1994 Republican revolution added that voters see “an enormous gap between what the legislative process is delivering and what the conservative wing of the Republican Party wants.”

In a wide-ranging interview this week, the Georgia Republican and 2012 presidential contender told CQ he sees parallels between his speakership and the Republican-controlled Congress today — but also many contrasts. The current speaker, Gingrich said, has a “much harder job” in dealing with President Barack Obama than he had with then-President Bill Clinton, who like Obama is a Democrat.

“It was just a different world,” said Gingrich, now a senior adviser at Dentons, an international law and lobbying firm. “Bill Clinton was a governor. He was used to dealing with legislators. He put getting things done above ideological rigidity.”

Some congressional historians and observers look to 1995 — when Gingrich took power after helping his party win control after 40 years in the House minority — as an early phase for the divisive partisan politics that continues today. Despite partisan warfare, the GOP-led Congress in the 1990s brokered compromises with Clinton on such measures as a welfare overhaul and balancing the federal budget.

“I think there’s a legacy that if you’re willing to sit down and negotiate face to face, you can get a lot done,” Gingrich said.

Room for Error

Of course, Gingrich also led Congress to shutting down the federal government twice in 1995, something that conservative hard-liners such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, may be agitating for again this year. Republicans got the blame again in 2013 when most of the federal government closed amid a funding battle over Obama’s health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Gingrich also enjoyed a largely unified Republican majority, unlike today as tea party-fueled conservatives find themselves at odds with some of their leaders and pro-business Republicans over such issues as the Export-Import Bank.

“ John [Boehner] understands that if he doesn’t make a major mistake, Republicans are going to remain in the majority,” Gingrich said. “That leads to a legitimate caution. I understood that if we didn’t throw long on every play, we’ll never be a majority. And that led to a kind of risk taking which I think would be totally inappropriate if you were a speaker that had 240 votes.”

Gingrich noted that Boehner, who currently enjoys a 246-188 margin, has a bigger majority than he had. The biggest majority Gingrich had was 228 Republicans during the 104th Congress (1995-1996).

“Boehner has the largest Republican majority since 1928,” he said. “People tend to forget that Boehner has gained ground every two years and has grown the majority, which gives him some problems because there are some on the right who are mad, but it gives him some advantages. He has more room to maneuver.”

Like Boehner, Gingrich was the target of a coup attempt. Under pressure, he resigned after GOP losses in the 1998 elections.

Late last month, GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina introduced a resolution aimed at removing Boehner as speaker. Meadows, who briefly lost a subcommittee chairmanship because he voted against a rule on trade legislation, said he was “trying to have a conversation about making this place work.” It was the second assault this year on Boehner, who lost 25 GOP votes for speaker in January, and remains a frequent object of conservative animosity.

“These things happen, and I think you have to recognize that at any given time a legislative leader is going to have some people who are unhappy,” Gingrich said. “But the fact is, Boehner has absolute working control of his conference, and he’s going to be speaker.”

Lessons From 1995

Gingrich, always voluble and often combative, said he sees contrasts in styles with Boehner, who was conference chairman when Republicans took control in 1995. 

“Boehner is a classic legislative leader who rose in the legislature and grew his support from his base with legislative activities,” the ex-speaker said. “And I was really a much more general election populist leader, almost in a presidential sense rather than a legislative sense.”

Gingrich also offered some advice to the crowded GOP presidential field: They ought to look at the policy-laden Contract With America and its role in helping Republicans win the majority in 1994.

“If you have a powerful, positive agenda that the American people identify with, you can win very decisive elections,” Gingrich said. “It’s more than just personality, or partisanship or negativity.”


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