Once upon a time, there were Republicans in public office who were happy to call themselves liberals. No, really. The sixties and seventies were full of them.
Before Jacob Javits was a convention center, he was a Republican senator from New York, who today would be considered well to the left of Barack Obama.
Same with Edward Brooke — once a senator from Massachusetts — who was Republican, liberal, and Black. Yes, you read that right.
Nelson Rockefeller, the multi-term governor of New York, was a fixture of my childhood. He actually made it to Vice President, though he was appointed, not elected, to the job in the wake of Nixon’s resignation.
There were others you could google. Charles Percy of Illinois. Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. George Romney — governor of Michigan, one-time presidential aspirant —who would probably be called a socialist today, especially by his son Mitt.
They were all Republicans. They were real liberals. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and serious about public service. Many were wealthy, and infused with that quaint sense of noblesse oblige — the condescending but socially useful conviction that children of privilege had a moral obligation to help the less fortunate.
They often broke with other Republicans. They often sided with Democrats. They perpetuated a long tradition of civility, collegiality, and compromise, in which the good of the country was presumed to be a desirable thing, transcending political differences.
When people of my generation speak wistfully of “bipartisanship,” this is what we mean. Younger generations have no framework for understanding it, since they’ve never seen it happen. It’s an abstraction.
The Roosevelt-Truman era had left the Republican party largely out of power, and by the midterm of 1994, they hadn’t held a majority in the House for forty years. Both houses of Congress were dominated by Democrats, who themselves came in varying political shades — the southern “Dixiecrats” were often more conservative than conservative Republicans.
So those liberal Republicans were stuck in the minority, seemingly forever, and their conservative colleagues were getting impatient and cranky. Loud voices on the right were fed up with government regulation, women’s rights, abortion, civil rights, and all the stuff they’re still fed up with now. The seeds of today’s wingnuts were planted long ago.
And by the 1994 midterm, they were flowering and spreading like noxious weeds. All that cooperation and compromise vanished with shocking speed. It was the end of bipartisanship. It hasn’t been seen since.
As I’ve discussed previously, there were some powerful forces at work to make that happen. But mostly what happened was Newt Gingrich.
Newt was a malevolent force of nature. He wanted no part of either civility or compromise. He wanted to tear the system down, and had little interest in what was left. What he was interested in was politics as all-out war.
From his seat in the House, he changed the game, introducing the very same scorched-earth tactics we now reflexively associate with the GOP. He launched smear campaigns. He stoked culture wars. He demonized Democrats. He made “liberal” a dirty word.
He turned horrific news stories — like the South Carolina mother who murdered her own children — into wedge issues, which he invariably blamed on the cultural depravity of Democrats. He taught his followers how to color their language with dog whistles and pejoratives, to paint liberals as sick, socialist, radical, pathetic, loony, and anti-American.
And he set out to take over Congress.
I won’t get into the notorious “Contract With America” — his rallying cry for the 1994 midterms — except to say that he masterminded the most audaciously slimy national campaign anyone had ever seen to that point. And it worked.
Riding a wave of anti-Democratic rancor that he himself had set in motion, Newt’s no-holds-barred tactics swept fifty-four new Republicans into the House, giving them control for the first time since 1954. And making Newt himself Speaker of the House.
As speaker, he was a true innovator. All those tools of obstruction, delay, and bad faith — those tools of which Mitch McConnell is the current master — were taught to the party by Newt. A bomb thrower’s bomb thrower, he brought the Clinton administration to a screeching halt.
He triggered the first government shutdown of the modern era. He publicly accused the Clintons of murdering their friend Vince Foster. He blocked every piece of legislation that came through the House. He engineered a major downsizing of the welfare system — a bad idea that has grown worse with time. And he entered into an unholy alliance with the emerging voices of hate radio — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and a whole generation of incendiary liars were nurtured by Newt, and given unprecedented access to him.
His crowning achievement was the impeachment of Bill Clinton. With all the righteous indignation he could conjure, Newt excoriated Clinton for having an affair. He couldn’t get a conviction in the Senate, but the whole process wrecked the entire last year of the Clinton presidency. Congress basically went dark. Sound familiar?
Mind you, as an avatar of Christian morality, Newt was about as convincing as Trump. He famously served his first wife with divorce papers while she was in the hospital, bedridden with cancer. He dumped his second wife for a woman half his age, Callista, with whom he’d had a long affair. When asked in 2011 about his various infidelities, he gave this gem of an answer:
"There's no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
Newt is still around, of course. He was an informal advisor to Trump. He was briefly considered as Trump’s running mate in 2016, till they realized that the ticket would have six wives between them. Little did they know how little that would matter.
But Trump knew that Newt was a lot smarter and a lot more dangerous than his usual toadies. So Trump bought him off. He appointed third wife Callista ambassador to the Vatican, and the happy couple — both lodestars of piety and Catholic humility — flew off to Rome to live large on the taxpayer dime.
Newt still makes a handsome living as the Republican party’s bomb thrower emeritus, with frequent appearances on FOX and occasional spots elsewhere. So while you and I don’t see him much, right-wing media still hails him as a hero.
Today’s political cesspool is basically the legacy of Newt Gingrich. The playbook he invented has been perfected by Republicans, some of whom have learned to out-Newt Newt. And the very notion of bipartisanship, let alone a liberal Republican, is now laughably dead.
In other words, we can credit Newt, not just with breaking the system, but also with teaching Republicans to make sure it stays broken.
P.S. For much more detail on the Newt saga, I refer you to an excellent article from 2018 in The Atlantic.