Why President Gingrich Would Fail at Every Reform He Attempted

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His governing style has a glaring flaw: before trying to improve anything, he insists that it must be 'fundamentally' transformed

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If Newt Gingrich won Election 2012 he wouldn't just appoint John Bolton to be Secretary of State, as many have reported. He'd first require a pledge. "I will ask John Bolton to be Secretary of State," he said at a Wednesday forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. "But I will only appoint him if he will agree that his first job is the complete and thorough transformation of the State Department and the replacement of the current Foreign Service culture with a new entrepreneurial and aggressive culture." That's the man Newt watchers know!

For him, specific policy improvements can't just be undertaken. It is first necessary to "fundamentally" change the federal government, or whatever piece of it is performing sub-optimally -- in this case, the State Department. Of course, if Bolton kicked off his tenure as Secretary of State by attempting a "complete, thoroughgoing transformation" of the agency, including the culture of its employees, the certain outcome would be that he'd accomplish nothing. And if Gingrich's rhetoric is to be believed, that's how his whole presidency would unfold. He's the anti-thesis of a Nike ad. "Don't just do it -- it won't work till you change everything!"

TRANSFORMING PUBLIC HEALTH


One of my favorite examples of this tick is an old Newt Gingrich op-ed titled "To Fight the Flu, Change How Government Works." Without even knowing what comes next you can see the problem. In Gingrich's defense, he's writing about the possibility of a flu pandemic, which is a real and frightening possibility. But take a look at his plan to better prepare America for such an event. "What we need to do to prepare for and respond to a pandemic," he writes, "is change the very way the government delivers services." Oh, is that all? In particular, he calls for an Avian Flu Czar:

Designate a single, accountable leader. An avian flu pandemic is among the greatest threats to our country today. Given our vulnerability and the amount of work to be done, the president must appoint a leader who is singularly focused on avian flu. This leader must be fully accountable for the government's progress. And the president must make it clear that this leader speaks on his behalf.

Fragmented authority will cripple the administration's efforts. In the president's plan, responsibilities are spread out among a number of United States departmental and agency heads. This is a recipe for disaster that could result in confusion, finger-pointing and neglect. If after the failure of Hurricane Katrina the administration hasn't understood the need for a single, dedicated leader, it hasn't yet faced up to the scale of disaster that a flu pandemic presents.

Hey, wait a minute. Do we need a dedicated flu pandemic leader and a separate hurricane leader? In any case, there's more:

Replace bureaucratic administration with entrepreneurial management. If an avian flu pandemic sweeps the United States, it will pose a tremendous challenge in terms of speed, lethality and complexity. Federal, state and local governments will need to act with the speed and agility of the information age.

Unfortunately, our government cannot operate at anything approaching this level. Despite modest civil service reforms over the years, the government remains caught up in a bureaucratic process-oriented approach to business. The government's pandemic preparations must be equipped with 21st century entrepreneurial management practices that mirror those of America's best-run corporations. The government will need to stop focusing on process and concentrate instead on results.

Got that?

As soon as federal, state, and local governments are managed by a totally different system, working seamlessly with one another, and performing with the speed and efficiency of "America's best run corporations," we'll be ready to start concentrating on effective ways to fight the bird flu.

Actually, we'll almost be ready.

In order to concentrate on results, Gingrich says, we'll need "a management system that allows for collaboration between the government and communities similar to the Compstat crime system used by the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments." Except this one is for pandemics.

What's especially confounding is that Gingrich himself doesn't even believe that all this could happen. "Until we receive word that a pandemic is loose in this country, last week's announcement could well be the high point of public attention to the threat posed by avian flu," he writes. "The pressure to prepare will decline. And as this happens, government attention will be pulled in other directions." It's as if his goal is sounding visionary or one day saying "I told you so."

Wouldn't it be more effective to suggest modest public health precautions within the current system? They'd be less effective than successfully changing the nature of federal, state, and local government under the direction of a competent, hyper-focused Avian Flu Czar empowered to purchase and install expensive public health infrastructure everywhere in America. On the other hand, more modest precautions might not require magical fairies to achieve.

TRANSFORMING THE WAR ON TERRORISM

Similar flaws lurk everywhere in Gingrich proposals. What did he recommend that George W. Bush do to better wage the War on Terrorism? After insisting on re-branding it World War III, Gingrich offered this on September 7, 2006:

First, the president should address a Joint Session of Congress to explain to the country the urgency of the threat of losing millions of people in one or more cities... He should further communicate the scale of the anti-American coalition, the clarity of their desire to destroy America...

Were Americans open to a sweeping speech about civilizational danger from Bush as late as 2006? But no matter. For Gingrich, re-framing communication with grand rhetoric is always the first step.

He goes on:

Then he should announce an aggressively honest review of what has not worked in the first five years of the war. Based upon the findings he should initiate a sweeping transformation of the White House's national security apparatus. The current hopelessly slow and inefficient inter-agency system should be replaced by a new metrics-based and ruthlessly disciplined integrated system of accountability, with clear timetables and clear responsibilities.

Come to think of it, the War on Terrorism could be waged more effectively if only we made every entity and person involved faster and more efficient. Somebody get this guy a highly paid consulting gig.

And then?

The president should insist upon creating new aggressive entrepreneurial national security systems that replace (rather than reform) the current failing bureaucracies. For example, the Agency for International Development has been a disaster in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The president should issue new regulations where possible and propose new legislation where necessary. The old systems cannot be allowed to continue to fail without consequence. Those within the bureaucracies who cannot follow the president's directives should be compelled to leave.
There's an irony in Gingrich calling in 2006 for a new homeland security organization, since he was one of the people who called after 9/11 for -- what else? -- transforming government by creating the Department of Homeland Security. But set that aside. There's still more to process:

The leaders of the new national security and homeland security organizations should be asked what they need to win this emerging World War III, and then the budget should be developed. We need a war budget, but we currently have an OMB-driven, pseudo-war budget. The goal of victory, ultimately, will lead to a dramatically larger budget, which will lead to a serious national debate. We can win this argument, but we first have to make it.
So to sum up. Circa 2006, with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden still on the lose, and occasional terrorist attacks being foiled, Gingrich's advice to the president was to give a speech to Congress, shake up high level staff, issue some new regulations, propose some legislation, create a whole new bureaucratic department, hire some new bureaucrats, ask said bureaucrats to study what resources they need, and ask Congress for those funds... all for the payoff of spurring a national debate (about what exactly we can't know when we begin) that might result in the budget request being granted because at that point you'd have made a case.

That would've shown the terrorists.

Five days later, on September 11, 2006, Gingrich articulated a somewhat different but equally sweeping plan to win the War on Terrorism:

We have to move to a 'one war' model in which everything in a country is done in a coordinated, integrated manner with the same precision and drive in the civilian as in the military agencies. This will require profound change in how the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Treasury, and a host of civilian departments operate. The current performance of many of these agencies in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan is so bad it should be a national scandal. We over rely on the military because it is the only competent system we have. This cannot continue if we are to win this war.

Ponder that new plan for a moment. In order to win the war, says Gingrich, the civilian agencies in America's government will have to run with the same precision, drive, and coordination as the military. The same document contains Gingrich's specific plan-of-the-moment for Iraq (emphasis added):

Our number one goal should be an all out effort to revitalize the Iraqi economy in the next six months. One step would be a White House conference on purchasing where very large corporations would be asked to begin purchasing modest amounts of light manufacturing from Iraq.

This step alone could lead to a 20% improvement in the economy. A second step would be to create an Iraqi Civil Conservation Corps and an Iraqi Works Projects Administration and simply get young men working. It is true that there is today no reliable American agency which could implement these plans. That agency should be invented immediately and given the authority to get the job done.
By November 28, 2006, the grandiose, years-long projects and reform of civilian agencies suggested months prior had been forgotten, or amended, or something, for the newest prerequisite for victory was a new years-long project that would transform the military agencies:

We need fundamental change in our military doctrine, training, and structures, our intelligence capabilities, and our integration of civilian and military activities. The instruments of American power simply do not work at the speed and detail needed to defeat the kind of enemies we are encountering. The American bureaucracies would rather claim the problem is too hard and leave because being forced to change this deeply will be very painful and very controversial. Yet we have to learn to win. Learning to win requires much more than changes in the military. It requires changes in how our intelligence, diplomatic, information, and economic institutions work.
Yes, even our economic institutions need change.

It requires the development of an integrated approach in which all the aspects of American power can be brought to bear to achieve victory. Furthermore this strategy for victory has to be doubly powerful because for three years we have failed to build an effective Iraqi government and we now have a shattered local system with many players using violence in desperate bids to maximize their positions. The plan has to be powerful enough to succeed despite Iraqi weaknesses and not by relying on a clearly uncertain and unstable Iraqi political system.
Lucky America never came up with a plan to succeed without relying on Iraqis, because by January 12, 2007, "To establish a civil society, Iraqis must rebuild their basic infrastructure," Gingrich decided. "Iraqis must take control of their destiny by rebuilding houses, stores, schools, roads, highways, mosques and churches." Americans would help with -- you guessed it! -- a transformative new program.

The week before Christmas, the Pentagon asked Congress to approve a supplemental $100 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of the estimated $500 billion spent to date. The administration should direct a small percent of that amount to create an Iraqi Citizen Job Corps, along the lines of FDR's civilian conservation corps during the Great Depression. The Job Corps can operate under the supervision of our military and with its protection. The Army Corps of Engineers might be particularly helpful in directing this effort. It will place our military in a constructive relationship with the Iraqis--both literally and figuratively... This should be done without delay--and it is only the beginning.
It's often "only the beginning" with Gingrich, because its always the beginning. Before you even have time to fundamentally transform your bureaucrats into efficient Lean Sigma Six machines you're suddenly forced to abandon that plan so you can build a successful New Deal-style employment agency in a war zone... and meanwhile on the home front/battleground, the War on Terror would suddenly require transforming our understating of the Bill of Rights. Said Gingrich: "At a dinner hosted by the Nackey Loeb School honoring our First Amendment rights, I called for a serious debate about the First Amendment and how terrorists are abusing our rights--using them as they once used passenger jets--to threaten and kill Americans."

Last but not least, there's the op-ed that Gingrich co-wrote with Rudy Giuliani, and that could've almost been in The Onion:

There are many lessons from the successful welfare reforms in New York City that can be readily applied in Iraq. In the early 1990s, New York City suffered an average of 2,000 murders a year while more than 1.1 million people--one out of every seven New Yorkers--were unemployed and on welfare. Too many neighborhoods were pervaded by a sense of hopelessness that came from a combination of high crime, high unemployment and despair.

"Workfare" proved an excellent method to change this destructive decades-long paradigm. It required able-bodied welfare recipients to work 20 hours a week in exchange for their benefits. In the process, we reasserted the value of the social contract, which says that for every right there is a responsibility, for every benefit an obligation...This change from welfare to work did as much as the New York Police Department Compstat program to keep reducing crime.

A similar model can work in Iraq.  

In a Gingrich Administration maybe Tommy Thompson can draw up the plans for pacifying postwar Iran.

TRANSFORMING CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Yes, Gingrich applies a variation on the same formula here too. Begin with an absurdly formulated statement of the problem: "There is a war here at home, and it is even more deadly than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Far more Americans are being killed by violent, evil people here in America than in our official military 'combat zones' overseas. Americans are killed by violent criminals all too often, of course. But the senselessness and tragedy of these killings and too many others is that they were completely preventable. Their perpetrators were men who should not have been in the United States to begin with and, after multiple previous arrests, shouldn't have been on the streets. Instead, they should have been in jail awaiting trial, sentencing, prison, and eventual deportation."

So, a war on illegal immigrant criminals.

To be sure, this is an actual problem. Back in 2008 I proposed what still strikes me as a common sense solution: before releasing criminals from jail, check their immigration status, and if they're here illegally, deport them rather than putting them back onto American streets. Easy enough, right?

But too simple for Gingrich. Here's what he proposed in the wake of murders committed by an illegal immigrant. First, "the president should call Congress back for an emergency session for three days to pass a single, decisive bill." It should be "very simple and straightforward," he wrote. "Its central feature should be the development of a real-time identification system to check legal status of felons. The system should be measured against the speed of automatic teller machines and should be run by private-sector companies who know how to build and maintain real-time identification systems and how to combat fraud. Every person arrested for a felony will be checked against the federal database, and unless there is positive proof they are American citizens or legal residents in America, they will be presumed to be here illegally and will be detained."

Of course, the chances were nil that an emergency session of Congress would be called for such a thing... or that such a measure would be passed, without study, in three days... and it isn't clear why a "real time" system is needed if you're only checking felons who are, you know, locked up for awhile. Plus Gingrich's additional demand that "and any city, county, or state that refuses to participate in checking every felony arrest will immediately lose all their federal aid" is both objectionable on federalist grounds and made his proposal even more politically untenable.

TRANSFORMING THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Before any of these proposals -- and I've just scratched the surface -- Gingrich orchestrated his takeover of the House of Representatives, where he applied this same philosophy to leadership. There was the Contract with America, his most famous iteration of laying out a sweeping master plan as a beginning. And there was his politicking inside the House of Representatives too.

See, some Speakers of the House focus on pushing their agenda. But Gingrich set about trying to fundamentally change the institution. He consolidated his power by getting rid of normal seniority procedures, started trying to replace the committee system with "task forces" that he could exercise more control over, started forcing Republican members to raise money for the party rather than just themselves... Whether you think those were good or bad ideas, Gingrich just will try to transform everything. He won't be denied. He has got lots of ideas, you see.

It isn't a conservative impulse. Nor is it always radicalism in service of his larger right-wing agenda. He just likes to think of himself as a transformative guy. As Connie Bruck relates in her 1995 New Yorker profile:

About a year after arriving at West Georgia, Gingrich, at twenty-eight, applied to be made chairman of the History Department - and, the following year (undaunted by his failure), to be president of the college. When that, too, failed, he met with the new president, delivered a critique of the institution, and was given the assignment of reorganizing it. Daryl Conner, then a graduate student in psychology, was enlisted to assist Gingrich in his reorganization efforts, and Conner quickly learned that Gingrich viewed this attempted reformation of the West Georgia system as training for something much, much larger. "It couldn't have been more than a few days before we were talking about what he thought he needed to do to save Western civilization."

It's a tick that often causes Gingrich to propose changes so absurdly unrealistic that no reform happens. And if he ever had the time, discipline or power to implement one of his schemes in full, the unintended consequences would be epic. He'd be a uniquely awful president, whether of a large corporation or the United States, accomplishing very little, and possibly mucking up a lot along the way.

And he'd totally remodel the White House before he got started.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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