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The Gingrich Doctrine and the 21st Century

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"The Gingrich Doctrine and the 21st Century"

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My colleague Satyam Khanna notes some of the broader context for the revelation that Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) is explicitly modeling his tactics on Newt Gingrich’s obstructionism in 1993-94.

In Washington, coverage of politics is dominated by politics rather than the policy consequences of politics. Thus, because of the outcome of the 1994 elections, Gingrich’s 93-94 tactics are held to have been a great success. But it’s important to be clear—those tactics included lockstep opposition to a Clinton economic program whose opponents set it would wreck the economy, but in fact laid the groundwork for years of prosperity. Gingrich’s success in blocking health care reform has been a small but persistent drag on the economy whose negative impact has compounded each and every year for the past fifteen years and has led to the preventable deaths of thousands and thousands of people at a minimum. Politics is politics and I understand that, but anyone who looks to that era as something to be emulated is dangerously indifferent to the real-world implications of congressional behavior.

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Meanwhile, the political contexts of the two eras strike me as different in a number of ways. Bill Clinton’s 43 percent share of the popular vote in the 1992 election made it plausible to believe that the center of public opinion was amenable to the idea that the President’s agenda needed curtailing. What’s more, the Democrats gained zero Senate seats and actually lost nine House seats. Under the circumstances, you can see why conservative felt emboldened. And their political strategy had a clear logic to it—a large number of Democrats in congress were representing constituencies that had pretty consistently been trending to the right in presidential politics since the 1960s. With a Democrat in the White House, the chance existed for a spirit of feisty opposition to force the voters in such constituencies to align their congressional preferences with their presidential ones.

That’s simply not the case this year. Not only did Obama have a more decisive win (obviously the absence of a third-party candidate is important here) but the Democratic caucus is more compact and includes many fewer outlier members whose constituencies are dramatically more conservative than the national electorate that backed Obama in November.

Of course, nobody can know what the results of all this will be, and objective occurrences in the world will have a large impact completely independently of the quality of Rep. Cantor’s tactical decisionmaking. But it does seem worth noting that the Virginia Republican Party, of which Cantor is a part, has not been a huge font of electoral success in recent years. Instead, the right-wing of the VA party has, with incredible speed and efficiency, turned one of the most solidly Republican states in the country into one with a decidedly blueish hue. When Mark Warner was elected governor in 2001, it was seen as a stroke of political genius to be able to carry the state. Then came Tim Kaine in 2005 and Jim Webb in 2006. In 2008, Democrats went from a 3-8 split of the state’s House seats to a 6-5 split. Warner became the state’s second Democratic Senator in a race that nobody paid any attention to because the state party had essentially thrown the election months earlier by driving their potentially electable candidate out of the race and throwing the nomination to a guy everyone knew would get his ass kicked.

In other words, though Gingrichism was politically successful in the mid-1990s, the record of Cantorism in the 21st century has been much weaker.

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