The Campaign Spot

When Gingrich Tried, and Failed, to Intimidate Tom Coburn

On Twitter today, I’ve noted that Romney’s seeming squeamishness might make him less likely to sell out conservatives as president than Newt Gingrich. It’s far from the most inspiring rallying cry, but I conclude, “Romney’s fear of a revolt on the right will keep him in line in ways that Gingrich’s ego would never allow.”

The perception of Newt Gingrich as much quicker to compromise conservative principles than to ever admit a mistake comes heavily from Sen. Tom Coburn’s 2003 book Breach of Trust, which discusses his years in the House under Gingrich as Speaker, and paints a picture of Gingrich as a raging egomaniac, wildly hypocritical and quick to toss Class of 1994 principles.

Coburn offers this easily forgotten, but quite revealing, anecdote about a fight over increasing funding for House committees. The following is from Breach of Trust, pp. 73–76:

Leadership said the increase was necessary to give Dan Burton (R-Indiana), chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the extra money he needed to continue his investigation into the White House’s campaign abuses. They also talked about how important oversight is and how the little we spend on oversight saves the taxpayers billions. This argument wasn’t terribly persuasive. First, oversight is a good investment only if the majority party has the political will to cut waste from the budget, which we weren’t doing. Second we knew the real need that triggered this spending binge had more to do with partisan politics than doing the hard work of scouring federal agencies for fraud and waste. Gingrich was convinced he could make political hay out of someone else’s miscues and became focused on Clinton rather than the job we promised the country we would do. Burton’s investigation into the White House campaign abuses was an appropriate, necessary, and essential function of his committee. Yet it was the right policy that was being pursued for the wrong reasons. Leadership was so obsessed with the political dimension of Burton’s investigation they lacked the focus and discipline to make an exception to increase spending for Burton alone while slamming the vault door on other chairmen . . .

The rule failed 210 to 213 . . . A few minutes later, the whip’s office announced a mandatory meeting of the conference at 7 p.m. A few of us met in [Lindsey] Graham’s office before the meeting to prepare ourselves for what we expected to be the ultimate woodshed experience. After a short pep rally, we walked over to HC-5, the room where Republicans and Democrats hold their caucuses.

When we filed in, it was immediately obvious that Newt Gingrich was furious. The meeting began with a roll call, and Gingrich said every Republican would be meeting in HC-5 in the basement of the Capitol even if he had to send the sergeant at arms — the police — to track members down…

When Gingrich said, “The eleven geniuses who thought they knew more than the rest of the Congress are going to come up and explain their votes,” someone leaned over to [then-Rep.] Mark Sanford and said, “I have never heard of anyone having to explain their vote.” Gingrich continued, “Those of you who had planned to go to John Kasich’s wedding on Saturday are not going. No one is going anywhere until we get the votes we need to pass this rule.”

. . . [Steve] Largent, an NFL Hall of Famer, went straight to the podium after [Dick] Armey finished speaking. A surprised Boehner recognized him. “Mr. Speaker,” Largent said calmly and directly to Gingrich who was no more than ten feet away, “I am not intimidated. I have been in rooms much smaller than this one when I was on the opposite side of teammates during a player’s strike against the NFL. The guys in those rooms weighed 280, 320 pounds and not only wanted to kill me, if they had gotten hold of me they probably could have. This isn’t the case here tonight. More seriously, I am not intimidated because I feel good about this vote and the principles behind it . . . if, as a matter of conscience, I believe a vote is in the best interest of the American taxpayer I represent back home, well, then I just have to vote that way.” . . .

“Many of us were elected in 1994, and before that election we signed a document called the Contract with America. One of its pledges was to cut Washington committee funding by one third. We kept our word and did just that. Yet this proposal would reverse that cut. We owe it to those same folks to whom we pledged our word to either keep it, or go back to them and say, we’re new to the business of government. We cut too much and need to change our committee staffing numbers. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t do what was proposed today, which typified the Washington way of doing business so many came here to change — take credit for cutting by a third and then below the radar screen quietly add back the spending.” . . .

Then I got up and said, “I’m just a doctor from Oklahoma. I admit I’m not much of a politician, but I know the difference between right and wrong. When you tell people you’re going to lead by example, then turn around and increase our own budgets, but ask them to make cuts, you lose all credibility. Maybe I don’t belong in the Republican conference, Mr. Speaker.”

Every one of the eleven members who voted against the rule said something and no one backed down or apologized for their vote. We believed we were doing the right thing, leaving no place for apologies. Gingrich’s tactic backfired. He thought he could embarrass and intimidate us, but not one person was intimidated . . .

The event exposed a more disturbing trend that we all understood but weren’t ready to accept: the Republican “team” was no longer being held together by principles but by careerism and the desire for power for its own sake . . . Gingrich’s vitriolic response to us bringing down the rule for the bill confirmed to us he was willing to trade our principles for short term political advantage over the Democrats.

Newt Gingrich, the conservative alternative.


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