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Blame Gingrich for #ReleaseTheMemo

But Republicans have somehow forgotten the goal of the gambit.

Any means necessary.

Photographer: J. David Ake/AFP -- Getty Images

The many debunkers of the Devin Nunes memo are doing important, necessary work. But they are also falling into a time-tested trap in Washington that Newt Gingrich built back in the 1980s.

When Gingrich decided to attack Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright, he had nothing more than a feeling that it was important to destroy the speaker and that there was a good chance a full ethics investigation might find something. 1

So how to do that? John Barry explained it in his wonderful book on Wright's fall. Gingrich began giving speeches about Wright's supposed corruption, especially in small and medium-sized cities, where the small and medium-sized local newspapers would often reprint his accusations without checking if they were actually true -- or even plausible. He then worked his way up the media ladder, pressuring bigger newspapers by asking why they were ignoring the big Jim Wright story that other media outlets were "reporting" on. 2 Gingrich knew that the media loves exposing corrupt politicians, and did everything he could to create an image of corruption around Wright. 

The gambit more or less worked: The House Ethics Committee opened an investigation and found some relatively minor violations, and Wright resigned. That's one version of the story. The other version would emphasize how unhappy House Democrats had become with Wright's efforts to centralize influence within the House, strengthening the party leadership and weakening the committees; when given the chance to get rid of him and install the decentralizing, committee-respecting Tom Foley, Democrats took it. 

Gingrich, however, credited himself for Wright's downfall -- and Republicans within and outside of the House took notice, applying the Wright playbook to the next big target: President Bill Clinton.

They found some stories that could plausibly be sold as corruption, repeated them nonstop, convinced many in the media and good government groups that a formal investigation was needed, kept pushing until a special prosecutor was appointed, and then hope something turned up. That's how a special prosecutor appointed to look at some ancient financial dealings wound up focusing on a presidential affair which hadn't even happened when the inquiry began. 

By Barack Obama's presidency, placing stories in the national media became incredibly easy thanks to the establishment of Fox News and the growth of other Republican-oriented media. But Republicans following in Gingrich's footsteps lost the point of the whole exercise. It was easy to get everyone talking about Obama's birth certificate or, in perhaps the best example of all, Benghazi. But it was hard to inflict the kind of political damage sustained by Wright and Clinton. 

Gingrich's media push was never intended to be a technique for getting accurate information to the public, or even, really, getting rumors and gossip to the general public. It was about convincing those who the public would regard as neutral to take the rumors and gossip seriously enough to spark an independent investigation. Only then does destroying the target become a real possibility. 

The Republicans trying so hard to release the memo could well succeed in sinking the credibility of the target -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller -- without sparking an investigation. But such efforts can also backfire: Sloppy work can push people to take them less seriously, and exposure on partisan media outlets is far less convincing than a pick up in the New York Times or a national television network. Stephen K. Bannon's strategy with "Clinton Cash" was interesting in this light: He funded a book that would convince the Times to run a story that would have the credibility to damage the eventual Democratic presidential nominee among the groups she needed most. 

The original Gingrich strategy was that a real investigation would prove Jim Wright guilty -- not that he could convince people who were listening to Rush Limbaugh that Wright was corrupt. Achieving the latter goal has become a path to quite a bit of success within the current Republican Party; it's just not clear that it amounts to much more than that. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Gingrich believed that Wright would "consolidate" power and then be incredibly strong -- something which never made any sense. American politicians generally don't consolidate power; they can build influence a little at a time, but they always remain constrained by their institutions. The exceptions are usually either bureaucrats in executive agencies, such as the long-term success of Robert Moses and J. Edgar Hoover, or sometimes in state and local politics, especially if they can control the electorate in some way. Too-strong speakers of the House tend to get knocked off in coups, as both Wright and Gingrich eventually demonstrated.

  2. He also found useful dupes within the ranks of nonpartisan reformers, such as Common Cause. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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