POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pelosi and Gingrich: Two Very Different Profiles in Leadership

They could not be more different.

One took huge risks, capitalized on a modest win to claim ideological victory, and turned a slim House majority into an unprecedented power base - only to self-immolate by wildly overestimating his public support.

The other lost her opening bid to install her key ally as House Majority Leader, has repeatedly failed to fulfill the central promise of her Speakership, to get American troops out of Iraq, and has yet to authoritatively command center stage -- but, strangely enough, has won enactment of more legislation than her flamboyant predecessor.

Newt Gingrich, the architect of the 1994 Republican revolution, and Nancy Pelosi, a symbol of Democratic resurgence and the first woman to become Speaker of the House, are a strange duo to contrast and compare.

In terms of dominating Washington and defining the broad national agenda, Gingrich wins hands down. For a year, Gingrich was the lead actor in Washington's drama, turning both President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole into secondary players.

With Newt at the helm, the once-sparsely attended Speaker's pre-session meetings with the press became so crowded that they had to be moved to a larger room.

In contrast, when many members of the media, including two of the major networks, failed to cover a prime time Clinton news conference, the exasperated president was goaded into proclaiming - famously -- that he was still a player:

"The constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. The record we have built up over the last two years and the things we are trying to do to implement it, give it relevance. The president is relevant here."

Pelosi has not dominated the discourse, and has ceded much of the political playing field to Bush. In this respect, the difference between 1995 and 2007 is striking.

"It has stunned me what George Bush has gotten away with on virtually every issue," said former Florida Congressman and now MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough. "They [Democrats under Pelosi's leadership] just won't stand up to a guy with a 30 percent approval rating. It's breathtaking."

Scarborough, elected to the House in the Gingrich class of '94, contrasted the continuing battle between Congress and George W. Bush over Iraq with the struggle between Gingrich and Clinton over welfare reform legislation in the mid-nineties

"We sent it to him three times. He vetoed it twice, but by the third time, he found a fig leaf and signed it."

Scarborough's downbeat assessment of Pelosi's track record is by no means universally shared.

"Pelosi has actually been more successful this year than Newt was in 1995, certainly in terms of measures enacted into law," argued Brookings scholar Tom Mann in an email exchange with the Huffington Post. "Newt dramatically led the House to enact nine of the ten elements of the Contract With American in the first 100 days, but virtually all of it died in the Senate, and then Clinton outfoxed him in the budget negotiations. Pelosi has been much craftier. Her PR problem is Iraq -- yet there is little she could have done differently to turn that around."

Another eminent student of Congress, the University of California-San Diego's Gary Jacobson, similarly told HuffPost:

"He [Gingrich] had more power than Pelosi and a more ideologically-unified party with a pre-set agenda (the Contract with America). This helped him get legislation through the House, but as you recall, much of it went no further, blocked by either the Senate or the president. He lost the budget showdown with Clinton decisively.... Moreover the dominant issue on the agenda today, the Iraq War, is more fraught with political risk than anything Gingrich dealt with. If the Democrats actually succeeded in forcing a change in policy, they then become responsible for the consequences, and it is hard to imagine anything but bad consequences coming out of Iraq no matter what the U.S. ends up doing. And of course it is not something the president can give way on without admitting failure on the defining action of his administration."

In her own defense, Pelosi cites a list of lesser achievements that have been signed into law, including an increase in the minimum wage, lobbying and ethics reform, Gulf Coast reconstruction assistance, and substantial expansion of college financial aid.

At the same time, she acknowledged at a November 1 press conference that getting American troops out of Iraq is the make-or-break issue:

"I know that Congress has low approval ratings. I don't approve of Congress because we haven't done anything -- we haven't been effective in ending the war in Iraq. And if you asked me in a phone call, as ardent a Democrat as I am, I would disapprove of Congress as well."

While Gingrich was the more domineering leader and the more broadly influential political actor, within a year of his ascension to the pinnacle of Congressional power, his agenda was derailed and, ultimately -- in political terms - he disastrously imploded.

The first of Gingrich's fatal miscalculations was the face-off with Clinton over the budget. The two locked horns on adoption of a strategy for funding the continuing operation of the government, each persuaded that the other would back down.

This game of chicken twice led -- in the autumn and winter of 1995-1996 -- to the shut-down of the federal government. Eight hundred thousand federal employees were furloughed; the Centers for Disease Control ceased disease surveillance; toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites stopped; the hiring of 400 border patrol agents was halted; delinquent child-support cases were suspended; 368 National Park Service sites were closed; national museums and monuments barred their doors; applications by foreigners for visas went unprocessed just as U.S. applications for passports lay untouched; U.S. tourist industries and airlines sustained millions of dollars in losses, and - to top it off -- American veterans went without key services.

Gingrich operated on the wholly mistaken judgment that the public would back Republicans in this showdown. It was a particularly egregious mistake for two additional reasons:

First, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, and the public's sudden awareness of anti-government domestic militias, severely undermined the Gingrich-led attack on the public sector.

Second, the overconfident House leadership rejected the much wiser strategy of acceding to Clinton's compromise offer in the stalled budget talks, an offer, which -- had it been accepted -- would have been seen as a major administration defeat turning many Democratic interest groups against the president.

Gingrich's ultimate blunder was in charging ahead with the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair -- again believing that the public would side with the GOP. The impeachment initiative drew attention to Gingrich's own marital infidelity, and exposed the extramarital affairs of Republican House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, as well as the tortuous marital history of Georgia moral-values ideologue, Representative Bob Barr -- leaving the Republican Party guilty in the public view of blatant hypocrisy.

. Gingrich's decision to seek Clinton's impeachment not only cost the GOP seats in the House in the '98 election, but also cost Gingrich his leadership post.

Pelosi has plenty of time to stumble, but her caution - arguably her timidity -- stands in direct opposition to Gingrich's high-risk propensity to gamble all his capital on the possibility of one big win.

While Pelosi may fail to quickly terminate American military involvement in Iraq it is also improbable that she will generate the fireworks that marked the Gingrich era. She may not succeed as extravagantly as Gingrich did at the apex of his power, but she is also unlikely to flagrantly crash and burn.

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