WASHINGTON -- Clinging to the tattered remains of a once decently-sized lead in Republican primary polls, Newt Gingrich is tying his White House ambitions to voter nostalgia for the 1990s.
The former House Speaker from Georgia has made valiant efforts to remind those who will listen that he played an integral role in what is fondly remembered as one of America's most prosperous eras. At debates, he routinely brings up the balanced budgets he managed, the debt he helped pay off and the superior economic climate that he effected. On the trail, he talks about tax deals cut to lower capital gains rates. A supportive political action committee has played up his showdowns with President Bill Clinton and his successful pursuit of welfare reform. The Gingrich campaign's own ads have hardly been subtle, with Gingrich promising to "rebuild the America we love" -- the one he built nearly two decades prior.
"It was 99.99 percent Newt," Gingrich's longtime aide, Rick Tyler, told the Huffington Post, when asked about all the focus on the '90s. "Beginning from the day he was sworn in, there was a dramatic rise in the stock market."
Campaigns are built on bravado. And while Tyler's claim is numerically true -- the Dow went from 3,867 the day Gingrich became Speaker to 8,975 when he left the House -- crediting all that to his leadership is to willfully ignore both the tech bubble and the fact that the Dow rose another 4,000 points after Gingrich left office.
Still, the collective effort to claim ownership for those gilded times has produced desired results. While Gingrich has received few favorable testimonials from the conservative press, those that have been made have centered not just on his role in winning back the House in 1994 but also on what he did with the speakership.
"Who was the last person to actually cut government?" asked radio host Rush Limbaugh in a recent show. "Who was the last person who actually led a movement that balanced the federal budget? Who was the person that did that? You're not gonna take a guess? That's right, it was Mr. Newt! He was the last guy who gave us a balanced budget. Now, there are a lot of other Republicans involved -- Kasich was key and a lot of others -- but Gingrich was Speaker."
Like most campaign pitches, the one framing Gingrich as the shepherd of the boom-boom '90s avoids gray areas and peddles falsehoods. Over the past few weeks, the Gingrich campaign has been publicly corrected by two fact-check organizations. The four years of balanced budgets that Gingrich said he secured, they note, were actually two. And the deficit spending that he helped reduce was also accompanied by a $600 billion (adjusted for inflation) rise in public debt from the time he became speaker to when he left office.
Being fact-checked is a small price to pay for a galvanizing campaign message. And even those officials who sparred with Gingrich while in President Clinton's administration concede that there are worse platforms to run on.
"There is no doubt that that was a better time, as difficult as it looked back then," said Don Baer, a former Clinton communications hand. "It was a time where everyone understood they had some responsibility to ultimately come up with something and not just completely grind things to a halt for the sake of the optics of it. That seems to have been lost entirely and as a result nothing gets done."
As Gingrich himself declared this week: "I think you'd have to say that there was something going on there that allowed a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to put the country first in a way that, unfortunately, President Obama, you can't find."
As obvious as it is to draw such a contrast, Gingrich's approach has not been without pushback and not just from the legions of fact-checkers. For starters, the political process was, at times, utterly messy during Gingrich's tenure as Speaker. A recent Time Magazine post noted that the continued focus on the '90s would logically end in re-litigating Gingrich's role in impeaching the president.
Another side effect of the Gingrich campaign's '90s nostalgia is that it has prompted a bit of reflexive credit-grabbing, both from conservatives in the '94 to '98 Congress -- who note that they had to spar with Gingrich repeatedly as he drifted from party principle -- as well as from members of the Clinton White House, including the president himself.
"Not really," President Clinton replied, when asked by NBC if Gingrich deserved sole credit for balancing the budget. "But I think he did work with me to pass some good budgets ... [I]f I were in his position I'd be saying that because it is true that we worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass five budgets and they worked out pretty well for the American people."
Clinton would note, in that same interview, the "lion's share" of budget balancing took place in the 1993 budget act, which occurred one year before Gingrich reclaimed the House for Republicans.
But that too is not entirely fair. One former Clinton aide noted that the president's memorable June 1995 speech, in which he publicly embraced a balanced budget, was done, in part, to disarm attacks from Gingrich and his minions. Once the president could say that everyone was focused on the same objective, the debate than shifted to tactics (i.e. what would done to make that budget balanced). The same held true with welfare reform, which the president did believe in but chose to tackle partially in response to pressure from his adversary.
"Democrats do not look fondly back on the 1990s because they lost the majority in the House and Senate and Newt was winning all the policy wars," Tyler said. "In fact some Republicans don't look back fondly upon that either."
And yet, Gingrich's current boastings are a bit far-fetched even for him. The former Speaker has addressed his time in that office in a number of books he's written since. In each, he has made sure to accuse historians and reporters of underestimating the policy he effected. But Gingrich has also shared credit with colleagues, notably, former Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott whom he argued was a deft legislative operative unhindered by the political ambitions of his predecessor Bob Dole. And in his 1998 book, "Lessons Learned The Hard Way," he acknowledges that Clinton shaped the debate in deeply meaningful ways.
"Among our several miscalculations, in some ways the most dangerous of all, was to underrate the communications prowess of William Jefferson Clinton," he wrote. "Give the man a victim, and he can bring a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye. And if you add to that the opportunity to charge the Republican Congress with some villainy or other, he will positively go into overdrive."