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The Divorce Ticket

July 2, 2016

There were only three serious candidates left for the Republican presidential nomination by the time the Republican National Convention convened in Miami Beach on August 5, 1968. Three days later, Richard Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot with just 25 delegate votes to spare out of 1,333.

The leading also-rans were the governors of our two most populous states: California’s Ronald Reagan and New York’s Nelson Rockefeller. Of course, Rockefeller was later appointed vice president after Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon as president, and Reagan was later elected president, ousting Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Reagan is the archetype of modern conservative Republicanism, and Rockefeller is the archetype of bygone liberal Republicanism. What they had in common was divorce: Ronald Reagan remains our only president to have been divorced, and Nelson Rockefeller our only divorced vice president.

Al Gore divorced Tipper Gore after he left office; therefore the 76 men who have served as president or vice president have run up a collective total of three lifetime divorces.

Donald Trump, the presumptive 2016 Republican presidential nominee, has been divorced twice. So has one of the most frequently mentioned candidates to be Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Newt Gingrich. The two of them would more than double the divorce total of the entire history of American presidents and vice presidents.

I don’t want to sound like a prude; I don’t disapprove of divorce per se – although in Trump’s and Gingrich’s cases (as in Rockefeller’s), the men’s divorce rate correlates closely to their infidelity rate, and their infidelity rate correlates inversely to their respect for women.

My most serious objection to Trump and Gingrich isn’t their marital history; it’s their policy history. Trump’s history of policy malleability and blowhard buffoonery has been well documented during this campaign; Gingrich’s history has not been much examined so far this year.

Speaking of malleability, Gingrich served as Rockefeller’s Southern regional director in 1968. He ran for Congress in 1974 against a conservative Democrat, prominently featuring pro-environment positions in his campaign. Gingrich was a history professor teaching environmental studies at the University of West Georgia at the time. The incumbent was listed on the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen.” Gingrich did well in the campaign, especially given that 1974 was a Democratic wave year.

Gingrich ran a re-match campaign in 1976. He lost a fairly close race – but again did unexpectedly well, this time against the tide of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter’s big home-state win. As Gingrich prepared for a third race in 1978, the incumbent opted to retire.

In 1978, against a more conventional Democrat, and in the national context of increasing conservative supremacy in the Republican Party and the decline of Rockefeller Republicanism, Gingrich emphasized the anti-tax and anti-welfare positions that Reagan championed. He finally won the seat.

From his early days in Congress, Gingrich established a strong affiliation for the principles of “supply-side economics,” and a strong proclivity for confrontational tactics with Democrats. Gingrich organized a group he called the Conservative Opportunity Society, whose ideas Ronald Reagan employed in his 1984 re-election run and in his 1985 State of the Union address.

Gingrich took his first House leadership position in 1989, narrowly winning a race for minority whip. He vowed to make the Republican caucus more aggressive. In 1990, the conservative political action committee GOPAC took note, circulating a memo drawing conservatives’ attention to Gingrich’s vocabulary: the use of incendiary words like “radical,” “sick,” and “traitors” to describe Democrats and their positions, and words like “opportunity,” “courage,”and “principled” to describe Republicans and their positions.

Gingrich helped win approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he was a proponent of free trade agreements generally. He wanted to expand NAFTA to include Chile first, and eventually all of Latin America. He has since shifted to opposition to NAFTA in particular and skepticism of international trade agreements in general.

Gingrich’s political high water mark was surely 1994 to 1996. Campaigning on his Contract with America, Gingrich spearheaded the successful effort to give the House of Representatives its first Republican majority since 1954. Republicans gained 54 seats, and Gingrich was easily elected speaker of the House. TIME magazine named Gingrich its “man of the year” in 1995.

The Contract with America included a variety of anti-tax, anti-regulatory, and anti-welfare proposals. It also included anti-crime proposals such as more aggressive use of capital punishment, enhanced funding for prison construction, and roll-back of constitutional protections against illegal searches and seizures. The Contract included proposals to limit American support for the United Nations, beef up defense spending, rein in tort litigation, and impose legislative term limits.

Much of the Contract became law under Gingrich’s speakership in 1995 and 1996. Some of the Contract – the plunge into mass incarceration comes to mind – has proved to be deeply problematic.

Gingrich proposed the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise in 1995 – not in order to allow gay service members to serve openly, but to reinstate military authority to ban gay service members altogether. Having once praised Democrats for their historic foresight in championing black civil rights did not save Gingrich from historic myopia in opposing gay civil rights.

Ultimately, it was Gingrich’s penchant for confrontation that led to his fall. Gingrich engineered a budgetary confrontation with President Bill Clinton that led to two government shut-downs in November 1995 and December 1995 to January 1996. Gingrich proved not to be Clinton’s match in the battle for public opinion, and his national standing was hurt.

Perhaps most damaging was Gingrich’s statement to a reporter that his position on the budget had been hardened by a personal slight – he contended that, on flights to and from Israel for Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, Gingrich had been directed to exit the plane by the rear door. The New York Daily News front-page screaming headline, “Cry Baby,” with the accompanying caricature of a Newt-faced toddler holding a bottle and throwing a foot-stomping temper tantrum, was only an exaggerated version of the general punditocratic reaction.

The problem only got worse when NBC released video showing Gingrich exiting the plane in Tel Aviv: he followed Clinton out the front exit. Gingrich was not just petty, but untruthful.

In 1997, Gingrich became the first House speaker to be formally disciplined for an ethics violation: claiming tax-exempt status for a college course given for non-tax-exempt political purposes. That summer, Gingrich had to put down a challenge to his leadership that was motivated by concern that Gingrich’s public image had become a political liability.

The final blow came in the 1998 mid-term elections. Gingrich was a leading advocate for Clinton’s impeachment, and he pushed Republicans to run on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (Later, Gingrich admitted that he had had an affair during the impeachment drive.) Republicans lost five seats – the worst performance in a mid-term election by a non-presidential party since 1934. Gingrich announced that he would not “preside over people who are cannibals,” and he left the House of Representatives after 20 years.

Most political movements have many sources, but Gingrich’s influence on modern conservatism is significant. He deepened Republicans’ commitment to tax cuts, and he demonized tax increases well beyond anything Reagan ever did. He elevated partisan purity over governing pragmatism, and he had a prominent hand in the development of Republicans’ confrontational style, giving rise to a hatred of compromise that favors risk to the country over risk to the party.

The bomb-throwing aspect of Gingrich’s personality seems like a good fit for the Trump campaign. As an adoptive Southerner (Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania), Gingrich would give the Trump ticket better geographic diversity than, say, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Also, Gingrich, at 73 years old and three years older than Trump, is less likely to want to upstage Trump in furtherance of future electoral ambitions. The much younger Christie, who is clearly bored with governing New Jersey, appears to harbor such ambitions.

Some of the commentary has been that Trump needs someone like Gingrich to compensate for Trump’s weaknesses – lack of political and governmental experience, lack of policy expertise, unfamiliarity with Washington’s dynamics and players. The problem with that analysis is that it overlooks the fact that Trump serves as a vice presidential nominating committee of one. Trump cannot make a vice presidential selection calculated to compensate for his weaknesses if he does not recognize that he has weaknesses.

Still, it’s a sign of how far things have fallen that commentators are asserting that Gingrich would bring “civility” to the Trump campaign. To my knowledge, Gingrich has no history of Trump’s brand of racial-slur-as-public policy. But Gingrich did say that President Obama “is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions].” He continued: “This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president…. If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane.”


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