Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Newt Legacy

I've thought that Jonathan Chait's just been excellent lately, but I have to nitpick his piece on Newt yesterday. Most of it is fine -- he's right to emphasize the importance of the revolt against George H.W. Bush's deficit reduction package -- but there's some myth-accepting in the last paragraph that I don't want to let pass (my emphasis):
Gingrich was a true pioneer in his recognition that the social norms that governed the behavior of the parties in Washington were an anachronism. The best way for the minority party to regain power, he understood, was a slash-and-burn campaign to discredit the majority. But the methods Gingrich pioneered were harnessed to an ideology, and that ideology retains just as strong a hold over its party today as it did when Gingrich rose to power two decades ago.
It's certainly true that Republicans have all accepted that slash-and-burn is the way to go. The only problem? There's really not any convincing evidence that it's actually a successful strategy.

What happened in 1994 was complicated. Part of it was about external stuff...there was a delayed reaction in the House to the 1990 redistricting (after Democrats held tough seats in a good Democratic year in 1992), which in turn was to some extent just the eventual working out of a regional re-alignment that had been in the works for years. Part of it was just a normal midterm effect. Part of it was probably a sluggish economy. Then there's another major part, which was Bill Clinton's unpopularity. But was that Newt's doing? In my view, no. One large chunk of it should be blamed on Clinton's own miserably bad transition and first several months in office. The credit for the other large chunk should go not to Newt and radical House Republicans, but to Bob Dole and Senate Republicans. It was the Senate, and not the House, that derailed much of Clinton's legislative agenda. And part of it, apparently, was about specific issues, but it's not clear to me that Newt's over-the-top, slash-and-burn rhetoric was responsible for that. Nor is it clear to me that Newt's campaign to vilify the House ever really came to much. I suppose the House bank junk probably did push a few Members into retirement or hurt them electorally, but remember that the bank thing was in 1992, not 1994.

What Newt did brilliantly was claiming credit for the 1994 landslide. No question about that. The opportunity was there: it's true that he was talking about a GOP takeover at a time when very few thought it was likely, either in 1994 or in the relatively near future. But they were wrong. By the 1990s, a Republican House was long overdue, and just because Newt was one of very few on the Hill to realize that (or at least to talk about it being a real possibility) doesn't mean that he was important in making it happen.

That's not to say that out parties shouldn't attack the in party; of course they will, and I'd go so far as to say they should. But there's a big difference between attacking and the Newt strategy of maximum inflated rhetoric on every possible issue and selective attacks on particular issues on which the parties actually disagree.

So, no, neither slash-and-burn nor, for that matter, the Contract with America had much to do, as far as I can see, with the 1994 landslide.

14 comments:

  1. I think you're slighting the impact of the House postage/banking scandal; Newt used it as the foundation of the narrative that Dems had grown corrupt due to the time they'd controlled the House (45 years). I suspect, by examining my own reactions, that narrative had considerable impact on centrist voters who may not have been wildly in love with the Contract for America, but who could be turned off by the Democratic House. It fit in with the whole Reform Party meme.

    Would many political scientists argue it's good for one party rule for two generations?

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    1. I'm just not convinced that anyone voted against their own Member because they hated Congress...any more than they normally hate Congress. There is evidence IIRC about direct effects (Members involved in the scandal were hurt), but that's 1992. But a generalized, partisan, effect? I'd have to see evidence.

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    2. Frankly, I never really understood the banking scandal. If I recall, it was presented as evidence that Congressmen had privileges the rest of us don't. Well, if that was news to somebody, swell. But at the time, even I had overdraft protection, and that's all it seemed to amount to.

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    3. Yes, as far as substance was concerned, it was at least a 99% phony scandal.

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  2. backyardfoundryMay 3, 2012 at 1:54 PM

    Is this kind of assessment "political science?"

    If yes, how is it different from storytelling?

    Ad hoc fallacy, anyone?

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    1. This is actually a fair question. The answer: Because I've read the work of those, such as Gary Jacobson and others, who actually studied the elections in question. Now, my interpretations are my own responsibility -- and you'll see other political scientists who disagree with me chime in at times -- and I rarely fill these posts with proper or even vague citations, both out of laziness/time constraints (sorry) and readability (not sorry).

      I do try to respond to follow-up questions asking for evidence or citations for this kind of thing, although alas it's hard to get to everything these days. Or maybe that's a good thing.

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    2. This seems like a good point to jump in....

      Hibbing & Tiritlli (I want to say the cite is both 1997 and 2000...I think there was a book chapter AND a published paper later) make the argument that 1994 was the then-high water mark of two numbers in public opinion (and that explains the Dems' losses. 1) disapproval of Congress (note: not the low of approval, though it was that, too, at least when they wrote the piece) and 2) knowledge of the majority party in Congress (again, with the caveat that SO MANY PEOPLE don't really know who the majority party in Congress is, but many guess the party of the president, and that gave them the right answer in 1994).


      I found the argument compelling enough to base a good part of the original idea for my dissertation on that logic. I should then note that Sarah Binder did my dissertation as part of her book Stalemate, and found nothing, so after getting REALLY angry and drunk after finding that out after I'd sunk a good year into it, I had to find another (related) topic, contenting myself with the idea that I had the same idea as Sarah Binder did, but 3 years later than she did.

      Long story short: there's evidence both for AND against the proposition. I tend to side with Bernstein on this, but there are credible arguments out there to the contrary.

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  3. By the way, just what was it that made "the social norms that governed the behavior of the parties" anachronistic before Newt and friends destroyed them?

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    1. Can't speak for Chait, of course, but I think he meant that the ongoing post-'60s realignment was making the two parties more ideologically cohesive, hence there was less "clubbiness" as members with similar outlooks but different party labels mingled made deals and so on. The new imperative was for the minority to stick together and stay in attack mode.

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  4. The NRA had, I think, a substantial influence on the '94 election. Does its impact get repeatedly left out of the discussion because they focused their efforts, spending unprecedented amounts of money, in areas outside the notice of the national media? In Washington state, certainly, the NRA had its gun aimed at Tom Foley, then Speaker of the House, from an "East of the Mountains" district -- although you could easily have missed that fact if you lived in "West of the Mountains" Seattle.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Paul Waldman recently wrote up some of the research on this, if you're curious.

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  5. Wasn't 1994 also the last year in which a member could retire and convert whatever unused campaign funds they had into personal cash?

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