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William F. Connelly: Gingrich Must First Govern Himself

By William F. Connelly
John K. Boardman Professor of Politics


Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once dubbed himself “the most professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.” Like Wilson, Gingrich is a man both of theory and practice, an intellectual and a politician. These two “professorial politicians” share much in common, including the idea of leadership as education.

Wilson thought government required leadership as education for “the instruction and elevation of public opinion.” The same can be seen in Gingrich’s unprecedented nationally televised address after House passage of much of the Republican’s 1994 Contract with America. Even the manner of the speech was didactic. Gingrich seemed at home speaking to the nation as a teacher, complete with pedagogic props such as vacuum tubes.

Shortly thereafter, Gingrich used his media-saturated trip to New Hampshire during summer 1995 as an effort to educate the nation by setting the agenda for the 1996 campaign. “I’m trying to shape the entire language and ideas of the 1996 campaign. … If you are going to try to set the intellectual framework for the 1996 campaign, if you knew anything about politics, where would you go?” New Hampshire, of course. Pointing to the huge press corps following him, Gingrich noted, “If I keep the door open, they’ll show up. I can teach.”

In 2012, will Professor Gingrich, once again, be able to teach?

Both Wilson and Gingrich as “literary politicians” authored books. Wilson wrote two political science classics, “Congressional Government” and “Constitutional Government.” Gingrich wrote, among others, “To Renew America” and “Lessons Learned the Hard Way.” Both of these professorial politicians tended to conflate statesmanship and rhetoric, leadership and oratory. Gingrich all but invented the “bully pulpit” of the speakership. He currently finds himself among the remaining GOP candidates thanks to his successful debate performances. Gingrich has a way with words.

Both Wilson and Gingrich believe in a politics of ideas, rather than a politics of interests — what political scientists call “party government” rather than interest group “pluralism.” Both men sought to promote, in Gingrich’s words, “grand partisanship” rather than “petty partisanship.” Hence, both politicians in their time proved to be polarizing partisans.

Both men also began as legislative supremacists seeking to promote “congressional government.” Yet both in their time learned the power of the presidency.

Indeed, for Gingrich as the most powerful House speaker in a century, this was one of the lessons learned the hard way. “A legislator and an executive are two very different things, and for a time we had allowed ourselves to confuse the two.”

Using his veto, President Bill Clinton was able to best Gingrich in the infamous 1995-96 government showdown-shutdown.

Gingrich later acknowledged House Republicans “had not only failed to take into account the ability of the Senate to delay us and obstruct us, but we had much too cavalierly underrated the power of the president. … How could we have forgotten that?” Good question. Hubris perhaps?

Had Gingrich failed to fully understand James Madison’s constitutional separation of powers?

In the run-up to the 1994 House Republican “revolution,” Gingrich proved to be a skillful wartime consigliore, liberating his party from its 40years as a “permanent minority” in the House. In part, Gingrich succeeded because he understood that party leadership is, in his words, about “conflict management” not “conflict resolution,” i.e. coalition-building.

Before either party can hope to govern Congress or the country, they must first learn to govern themselves. In 1994, Gingrich united the disparate factions within the GOP. If Republicans want to defeat President Barack Obama in 2012, they must first learn to manage the conflicting factions within their party, holding together their coalition, for example, of mainstream Republicans and tea party activists.

Can candidate Gingrich apply the lessons of 1994 to 2012?

Unfortunately, at times, Gingrich seems not to appreciate the most fundamental lesson of James Madison’s Constitution: Self-government begins with governing oneself. While it is certainly true that anyone seeking to be president must learn to manage the conflicting factions within his own party, a successful candidate and president must first learn to govern himself.

Can the impulsive Gingrich learn to govern himself long enough to earn the opportunity to govern the country? The famously voluble Gingrich loves to talk, sometimes tripping himself up. Live by the word, die by the word? Can Newt keep himself under control.

Longtime Gingrich watchers, friends included, have their doubts.

Certainly, the longer, more drawn out nominating process will test his self-discipline.

William F. Connelly is the John K. Boardman Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. His new book is James Madison Rules America: The Constitutional Origins of Congressional Partisanship.