Former House Staffer: October 1998 Is the Essential Gingrich Case Study

A former House GOP leadership staffer claims that to fully understand the hazards of former speaker of the House Newton L. “Newt” Gingrich’s leadership-style, the critical year is 1998.

Gingrich held on to the Speakership against an attempted coup in 1997, so going into the 1998 election and budget negotiations, he had the chance to make things right, said the former staffer, who asked his name be withheld because he works at a political advisory firm for Washington clients.

After the summer, the 1998 mid-term election loomed with four GOP congressmen running for the Senate against Democrat incumbents, but there was no budget deal for Fiscal Year 1999, he said.

“We begged him not to let the Senate leave town if the House was stuck here because of the four members running against senators,” he said.

But, when the Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) asked Gingrich if it was alright for the Senate to go home for the month of October, the Speaker told him it was no problem, he said.

“The result was that while Newt kept those four congressmen in town with the rest of the House to vote on stupid resolutions and to name post offices, the Democrats they were running against were back in their states campaigning.”

The four were: Rep. John E. Ensign (R.-Nev.) who lost to Sen. Harry M. Reid (D.-Nev.) by 428 votes; Rep. Robert D. Inglis Sr., (R.-S.C.) who lost to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D.-S.C.) whose 47 percent held Hollings to his second lowest percentage in his six Senate elections; Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R.-Wis.), whose 48.40 percent  was bested by the 50.55  percent Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D.-Wis.) garnered; and Rep. Linda Smith (R.-Wash.), who lost to Sen. Patricia L. Murray (D.-Wash.).

Letting the senators leave Washington affected a fifth race, too, the former staffer said.

In California, Republican State Treasurer Matthew K. Fong was ahead of Democrat Sen. Barbara L. Boxer in the polls until Boxer was freed to come back to California and turn her campaign around, he said. Boxer beat Fong by 10 points.

“When the House finally voted on the budget October 20, it was too late for any of them,” he said.

When the November 3 election votes were tallied, the GOP lost five seats in the House and gained no new seats in the Senate, he said.

“That was the year of the ‘six-year itch,’ which historically is a very bad election for the party that holds the White House,” he continued.

“Lott’s strategy was to do nothing, so there would be no chance of jeopardizing the historical trend,” he said. 

On the House side, Gingrich placed his home state ally Rep. John E. Linder (R.-Ga.) as the leader of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, he said. “He also sent over a tribe of his gurus from his office to work at the NRCC.”

This move gave Gingrich complete control, he said.

“Today, you can look at any race and there are five different bloggers, who can tell you exactly what is happening up-to-minute,” he said.

“Back then, you had to rely on what the leadership told you what was happening, so we lost five seats, there was complete shock—no one saw it coming at all.”

“What was even more galling to the members was the way Gingrich and Linder had everyone convinced we were headed for a 30-seat gain,” said the former staffer, who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign.

“It also didn’t help that the budget that passed was a disaster. It had no tax cut and Clinton got everything he wanted,” the former staffer said. “Limbaugh was killing us and calling the budget a sellout, so conservatives stayed home.”

The key to the budget disaster was Gingrich’s leadership style, he said.

“Because Lott was just going to go along with whatever, it came down to the White House and the House,” he said.

“Gingrich’s ego was so huge, he insisted on conducting the negotiations himself,” he said. “There would be four staffers from the White House on one side of the table and then Newt.”

The result was a dynamic where the White House aides could avoid commitments by saying they had to go back and get approval, but Gingrich was the Speaker, so there was no way to claim he did not have the authority to cut a deal, he said.

The other problem was the haphazard way that Gingrich would make promises, he said. “There used to be a staffer whose only job was to follow Newt around with a pen and paper to keep track of his promises. Otherwise, there was no way to keep it straight,” he said.

One example involved then-Rep. Lindsay O. Graham (R.-S.C), who is now a senator, he said.

“He promised Lindsay Graham and a few others that he would make sure that Yucca Mountain in Nevada would open for storing spent nuclear fuel, then he promised Ensign, who was running for senate in Nevada that he would make sure it was shut down,” said the former staffer who also worked at the Republican National Committee and at the Senate.

“Even when he campaigned for candidates it was a crazy production,” he said. “He had a 13-page rider with requirements like: Must be driven in American-made car, must have steak for lunch and must have a treadmill in hotel room.”

The former staffer, who continued to work on Capitol Hill until he and his wife decided to have children, said he still sees hints of the old Newt in the new Newt.

“You can tell me that he now is a 70-year-old man and he’s learned, but how do you explain shooting from the hip to blast Paul Ryan, missing deadlines to get on primary ballots or taking off for a Greek cruise?” he asked.

“It’s all the same as before,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, look at how many congressmen who experienced his leadership, or even staffers, are working to make him president—if anything, it’s the opposite.”