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Jim Jaffe Headshot

Why DC GOP Is Wary of Newt

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The last two Washington insiders elected president were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, each of whom did his part to fuel the distrust of government that's now a chronic campaign theme. So it is hardly surprising that Newt Gingrich portrays himself as a Washington outsider. He may be undisciplined at times, but stupid he is not.

What's slightly more difficult to understand is the chorus from Washington insiders, especially his GOP colleagues, who oppose his candidacy by arguing that he is not a regular order guy who behaves in a predictable way and obeys the rules of the beltway culture. They think that's a criticism. Apparently they're so disconnected that they don't realize their argument can readily be construed as an endorsement by substantial numbers of voters (think Tea Party, then think again and add Occupy Wall Street), who see the Washington culture as the problem.

In my lifetime, we've seen two outsiders elected President who promised to change the Washington culture -- Carter and Obama -- and both disappointed the believers who supported them. An argument can be made that they didn't understand it well enough to change it (Obama's promise to hold the health reform bill conference in public was a clue. I don't know whether he believed it, but some of his supporters took it seriously and blame him for not delivering). And when Carter decided to make a new start by cleansing his cabinet of Washington insiders, the downward spiral had begun and the end was near.

Gingrich knows the Washington culture better than either of these Democratic presidents. Whether he seriously wants to change it -- or could -- are big open questions. But he wouldn't fail for lack of experience and expertise.

It is possible that things are really different this time. But history suggests insiders win the political iteration of the culture wars. Institutional change comes very slowly and substantive change is very difficult to change without it.

The dynamic in Washington would be very different -- and the results might be also -- if both houses of Congress made relatively simple changes in their rules. A Senate adoption of majority rule would be a seismic change. Modifying the House rules to empower the members by reducing the power of the leadership and their tools on the Rules Committee would also make a big difference.

But neither will happen. The fact that they are simple to understand doesn't make them easy to accomplish.

I am not a fan or supporter of Newt Gingrich. As a regular order Democrat, I see him as a potential threat to both the policies and procedures I support. In fact, I don't think Washington is the problem. Many of the people there simply represent voters who consistently reward bad behavior.

Many voters disagree with me. They think the way Washington works is the problem and they want to change it. That may be an impossible task -- which I think just as well inasmuch as change isn't necessarily for the better. But for those who think change is the answer, Gingrich is not an illogical choice.

This post, along with added Jaffe political commentary, can also be found at PunditWire.

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