As his presidential campaign slides toward the back pages of the history he loves to quote, Newt Gingrich may want to reflect on one lesson of history that he never mentions: what a weak platform the House Speakership has proved to be for presidential candidates.
Although House Speakers are national figures, they have faded from view in presidential politics over the last century. In fact, only one has ever made it to the White House.
That was James K. Polk, a Tennessee Democrat of the Andrew Jackson stripe, who was Speaker for four years in the 1830s. He gave up his seat in Congress in 1838 to run for governor of his home state. He won that race, but lost his next two tries for the governor’s chair in Tennessee.
As the Democratic national convention neared in 1844, Polk was a former Speaker, a two-time loser in his home state, and a rather quiet contender for the vice presidential nomination. But the pre-convention favorite, Martin Van Buren, fell short of the needed two-thirds majority. The delegates turned to a “dark horse,” Polk, who was embraced as Jackson’s political heir.
Speaker v. Speaker
In the general election, Polk’s Whig Party opponent was a man who had served as Speaker of the House in six different Congresses, Henry Clay of Kentucky. It was the only time two former Speakers faced off in a presidential contest.
The dynamic Clay had sought the presidency before, losing to John Quincy Adams in 1824 and to Andrew Jackson in 1832. His luck was no better in 1844. Polk won narrowly with a margin of 1.5 percent of the votes cast.
Some years earlier, Clay had famously said, “I had rather be right than president.” For a third time, voters granted him the second part of that wish.
Two more Republican Speakers have run as national candidates but both foundered on the corruption that infested Congress in the late nineteenth century. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana became vice president in 1868, but was dropped from the Republican ticket four years later, tarred in the bribery schemes surrounding the Union Pacific Railroad.
Speaker James G. Blaine, was the Republican nominee in 1884 but lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland, falling victim to the seductively rhythmic slogan, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, Continental Liar from the State of Maine.”
After Blaine’s loss, the only Speaker to make a credible lunge for the White House was Champ Clark of Missouri, the Democratic frontrunner when his party’s convention began in Baltimore in 1912. Forty-six ballots later, the convention turned its back on Clark in favor of another dark horse, Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey.
Technicians, Not Leaders
Since 1912, presidential contests have been Speaker-free. Many Speakers in that period have been powerful figures, yet they mostly focused on the business in their own legislative chamber, mastering often-arcane legislative rules and managing their majorities. The talents that brought Tip O’Neill and Dennis Hastert into leadership did not serve them well in the sound-bite politics of the electronic age.
When the Republicans captured the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades, new Speaker Gingrich changed the job. He aimed to use the Speaker’s role as a national pulpit.
Gingrich proclaimed his “Contract with America,” challenging President Bill Clinton for control of the nation’s political agenda. Gingrich’s ambitions overmatched his ability to deliver, however, and he left Congress after only two terms as Speaker, propelled by widespread dissatisfaction among House Republicans.
This year, with public approval of Congress at nine percent, Gingrich again has sought to use the Speakership as a platform for national leadership. History has not been on his side.