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Newt's Lesson for John Boehner: Be More Like Pelosi

What lessons should John Boehner take from the fall of Newt Gingrich?

I think there are three leading explanations for why Newt was a failed Speaker. John Harwood today pushes what I think is the least helpful of these, what I think of as the Sonny Bono explanation: Newt had a terrible media image. It is of course correct that Newt Gingrich was highly unpopular, and to a fair extent that was because of mistakes within his control. But Nancy Pelosi has is highly unpopular, and her caucus has shown essentially no signs of jettisoning her. Leadership elections are mostly not about what people think out in the country.

(Sonny Bono? It's the explanation favored by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, in their terrifically reported Tell Newt to Shut Up! They begin the book with Newt ignoring Bono's warning: "You're a celebrity now. The rules are different for celebrities...You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities.")

The second explanation is that Newt Gingrich revealed himself, especially in the government shutdown of 1995-1996 and the Lewinsky scandal of 1998 to be an absolutely terrible strategist and bargainer. Again, this was certainly true, and probably did quite a bit to deflate his (undeserved, in my view) image as the genius responsible for the 1994 landslide. But again, I don't think it's what cost him his job.

The explanation I've always endorsed for Newt's fall has to do with centralization and decentralization in the House of Representatives. Unlike Senators, Members of the House have always been willing to trade their small ability to influence most issues in exchange for a stronger voice on a narrow array of issue areas. Thus, the comparatively strong House committee system. Since the 1958-1974 reforms of the House, the (decentralizing) committee system has always had to compete with the centralizing influence of the party leadership, and especially the Speaker. Speakers who have pushed too hard have not lasted long.

What's helpful is to see the parallels between Newt Gingrich and Speaker Jim Wright. Like Gingrich, Wright took office after a major electoral victory (in Wright's case, the 1986 return of the Senate to Democratic control). Like Gingrich, Wright centralized power in the hands of the Speaker. Like Gingrich, Wright initially appeared to be very successful. And like Gingrich, Wright was quickly dumped. Both Speakers were accused by the minority party of ethical violations, but neither was found guilty of anything substantial; instead, it certainly appears to me that in both cases the majority party was eager to use whatever excuse it could to move on to a Speaker who would allow the committees to have more meaningful roles.

In Newt's case, the key text was the letter by Appropriations Chair Bob Livingston demanding that Newt restore the power of committees if he wanted to retain the Speakership (for more, see Nelson W. Polsby, How Congress Evolves).

The tension between centralization and decentralization in the House is very real, and a difficult challenge that all Speakers face. The dangers of too much control by the party (and therefore the Speaker) can be seen in the fate of Wright and Gingrich; the fate of too little party influence can be seen, I think, in the problems the House had during the Speakerships of Tom Foley and Denny Hastert. In the modern era, only two Speakers, I think, have had much success with it: Tip O'Neill, and Nancy Pelosi. If I were advising John Boehner, I'd tell him to look to them for role models. Sure, you don't want the Speaker to be a buffoon on national television, and Boehner is wise to avoid the media mistakes that Newt Gingrich made. But if he wants to succeed as Speaker, it'll take more than that.