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Republican old guard takes aim at Gingrich

Says he damaged the party in 1990s

By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / December 9, 2011
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WASHINGTON - Former senator Alan Simpson recalls with great clarity the day, as he describes it, that Newt Gingrich “lied to the president of the United States’’ in budget negotiations with George H.W. Bush. And as new polls show Gingrich soaring to the lead of the GOP presidential primary field, Simpson is ready to share.

“I am ready to tell that story around the United States,’’ the Wyoming Republican said.

Simpson is part of the wing of the Republican Party establishment that remembers Gingrich as a disruptive and destructive force, one who caused self-inflicted damage to the party and helped set up President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection and other Democratic victories.

Now many members of the Republican Party establishment are watching Gingrich’s rise with trepidation, fearing a repeat may be at hand. In response, some Republicans have aligned with Mitt Romney, and even those who have not made an endorsement, including Simpson, are hoping to remind voters of Gingrich’s record. If it were a movie, it might be called “The Establishment Strikes Back.’’

Romney’s campaign also has seized upon party fears about Gingrich, arranging a conference call for reporters yesterday with two key establishment backers, John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor, and Jim Talent, the former senator from Missouri, who blasted Gingrich’s bombastic ways and said he would be a lightning rod for controversy.

“If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want,’’ Talent said. “If they can make it about the Republican nominee, then the president is going to win.’’

The Gingrich forces, however, welcome such attacks because the more he is pilloried by the GOP establishment, the more it bolsters his “outsider’’ standing with the Tea Party and undercuts Romney’s argument that Gingrich is a creature of Washington.

“The establishment never liked Newt,’’ said former US representative Robert Walker of Pennsylvania, one of Gingrich’s most loyal lieutenants in the House. Walker said, for example, the party establishment balked at Gingrich’s proposal for congressional term limits and was angered by the way he passed over some senior members for committee chairmanships. “A lot of those people ended up very angry at him,’’ Walker said.

While Gingrich is surging in the polls, he lags far behind in the most obvious measures of establishment support - endorsements and money. He has been endorsed by only seven members of Congress, compared with Romney’s 55, according to a tally by The Hill, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill.

For many members of the party establishment, the turning point in their relationship with Gingrich began in 1990, when Bush negotiated with Congress over a landmark deficit reduction package. Bush decided to break his “Read my lips: No new taxes’’ pledge in exchange for spending caps and cuts that would lead to a balanced budget. Sununu, who was Bush’s chief of staff, and Simpson, then the Senate minority whip, said in separate interviews that Gingrich, the House minority whip, assured Bush that he supported the package.

But when the deal was unveiled shortly afterward, Gingrich stunned the White House by announcing he opposed it. Bush confronted Gingrich at a party fund-raiser, saying, “You are killing us,’’ according to memoirs by former Bush aides.

Alumni of that administration said Gingrich’s criticism of the budget deal was a major factor in Bush’s failure to win reelection in 1992. Coincidence or not, Bush last week welcomed Romney to his home and invited a photographer to take a picture of the get-together, although he did not formally endorse Romney. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle, on Tuesday endorsed Romney.

Gingrich declined a request for an interview about the matter. His spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Gingrich never agreed to the budget deal because it resulted in a tax increase. “There are two sides to this story,’’ Hammond said. “There were those willing to raise taxes on the American people, and those who would not, and Newt Gingrich stood with those who would not raise taxes, and standing with him was the House Republican caucus.’’

The outcome of the budget deal was a turning point in Gingrich’s rise as a conservative leader, and moderate members of the party were pushed to the side. Gingrich authored the Contract with America that led to the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and put him in the speaker’s chair, further solidifying his status as a new party leader.

“The Democrats knew that was the end of George Bush because of ‘Read my lips,’ and Newt and his followers knew that Newt would eventually be king,’’ Simpson said in an interview. The clash over the budget, Simpson said, set off a meltdown in bipartisan cooperation that continues to this day. The issue is important to Simpson because, as co-chairman of a bipartisan budget commission, Simpson has been one of the most visible party members in urging more cooperation between the parties. “If Newt had done what he said he would do. . .the country would not be in the mess it is right now,’’ Simpson said.

The number of Republicans speaking out about their experience with Gingrich is growing. Former US representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, who worked in the party leadership with Gingrich before leaving Congress in 1993, charged in an interview that Gingrich changed the “structure of our congressional system’’ from representing constituents to “demanding uniformity.’’

“This is a man only interested in his own grandiosity,’’ said Edwards, who has not endorsed any candidate.

Jim Nicholson, who chaired the Republican National Committee during the last two years of Gingrich’s speakership, refrained from criticizing Gingrich, but said, “I just think Romney is the better guy for our needs at this time.’’ Some key Republicans who worked with Gingrich, including current House Speaker John Boehner, are uncommitted.

To be sure, many Republicans warmly remember Gingrich’s success in becoming the first GOP speaker in four decades. But Gingrich suffered a series of reversals. He was fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee for making false statements regarding the tax-exempt status of a college course that he taught, and the full House reprimanded him by a 395-to-28 vote in 1997. Gingrich antagonized Republicans by his insistence that the government be shut down rather than compromise with Clinton on a federal funding issue, a move that proved politically unpopular. Then, Gingrich pushed the resolution to impeach Clinton for lying about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich later revealed that he was having an affair at the time with a congressional staffer, who became his third wife.

By 1998, Gingrich’s actions had become so divisive that the party establishment decided he should step down. He held a conference call with other Republican leaders in which he blamed party members for his problems. “I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals,’’ Gingrich told his fellow Republicans, blasting the party establishment that had ousted him.

One of those who helped force him out was then-US representative Bob Livingston of Louisiana. Livingston said in an interview that he was upset with Gingrich for pouring party resources into a midterm election strategy that relied on attacking Clinton, after which Republicans lost five seats in 1998. Gingrich was forced to step down. Livingston was in line to become speaker but he lost the position after reports that he had had an extramarital affair.

Today, Livingston provides evidence that Gingrich can win back one-time opponents within the party.

Livingston is one of Gingrich’s top supporters and he co-hosted a $1,000-per-person Washington fund-raiser on Wednesday for him.

“Newt had four tumultuous years,’’ Livingston said. “But if you look at the big stuff and weed out the noise, we cut and eliminated programs, we reduced taxes, brought in welfare reform, we balanced the budget. I think Newt can be very proud of that record.’’

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish.

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