Why Hastert backs Romney over Gingrich
In a nook off the marbled halls of Congress, Abraham Lincoln replaced Tyrannosaurus rex.
New House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois made the swap in 1999, selecting a bronze bust of the 16th president to fill the first-floor Capitol conference room spot that for years was occupied by a dinosaur head the Smithsonian had loaned to his predecessor, Newt Gingrich.
Several House Republican staffers were particularly happy to see the skull with the ferocious teeth go -- it took up a lot of space along the wall near the speaker's seat, forcing others to stand during long leadership meetings.
The simple change in decor 13 years ago was indicative of larger changes that were simultaneously taking place within the House GOP. It foreshadowed, perhaps, Hastert's move to endorse former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over his former boss in this year's GOP presidential primary race.
While Hastert, of Plano, praises Gingrich's intellect and ideas, he also cites his "baggage" -- including a history of infighting with his own party.
"People have to look at who can get elected as president," Hastert said on Fox Business Network's "Lou Dobbs Tonight." "The enemy is over on the Democratic side."
Despite Gingrich's early primary surge, after Tuesday's caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has established himself as the chief competition to front-runner Romney, with the second-largest number of delegates. Still, Gingrich is campaigning hard in the run-up to Super Tuesday on March 6, when 76 delegates are up for grabs in Gingrich's home state of Georgia. He promises to contest every remaining state, including Illinois on March 20.
Hastert, a former Yorkville High School wrestling coach who rose to the lower chamber's top post in a fateful twist of events, began his tenure as House speaker building off both the successes and failures of Gingrich, the caustic congressman from Georgia whom many credit with the 1994 Republican takeover of the longtime Democratic House.
"Newt proved in 1994 that he was Moses by leading House Republicans to the promised land," Washington lobbyist and former National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Dan Mattoon said.
Yet, Mattoon said, in time, battles within and outside his party would prove "he was not Peter, the rock, the foundation on which to build a successful speakership,"
The differences, Mattoon said, "between Newt and Denny boil down to with Newt it was about him and his use of the speakership as a steppingstone to the presidency; for Denny, the former coach, it was about the good of the team and the fact that the speakership was the culmination of his political career."
Hastert, chief deputy whip from 1995 to 1999, watched from the leadership table as the House, under Gingrich's leadership, enacted a capital-gains tax cut and welfare reform and passed a balanced budget for the first time in more than 20 years, all accomplishments that play well for Gingrich on the campaign trail.
But Hastert also saw Gingrich face mounting opposition within his own ranks following ethics charges and the loss of several Republican seats in the 1998 general election. Gingrich, facing pressure to resign, refused to go quietly. Stepping down from his post in November 1999, Gingrich remarked that he was "willing to lead, but not to preside over people who are cannibals."
Hastert, speaker from 1999 to 2007, the longest tenure in House history, is largely credited with relationship-building with members on both sides of the aisle.
Former Chief of Staff Scott Palmer said he was impressed by how patiently Hastert could listen to members when a problem arose and they were angry with him or with each other, even though sometimes the discussion seemed to drone on forever around that big table in the Capitol conference room.
The bearlike speaker was known for his coachlike demeanor, throwing a burly arm around the shoulder of a colleague, persuading him or her to make a key vote by saying, "I really need you."
Similarly, Hastert, asked about his presidential endorsement, described Romney as the GOP contender with "sheer force of personality to get things done."
Hastert said he learned that firsthand while he was serving as honorary chair of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Romney chaired the fundraising committee after leaving Bain Capital, and from watching Romney's work as the governor of Massachusetts, "not an easy place for a Republican to get elected in, let alone govern."
But Keith Hansen, Newt for Illinois' campaign director, points out that during Gingrich's tenure as speaker, four balanced budgets were produced as well as welfare reform, two feats that Hastert is unable to claim.
"Denny learned very different things than what Newt learned in his strings of time (as speaker)," Hansen said. "They illustrate very different lessons of the power of being speaker. Very different styles."
Hansen, of unincorporated Lake County, said the Gingrich campaign isn't concerned about the effect of Hastert's endorsement in Illinois.
"The reality is, in a race where people are worried about their future, I don't think the musings of political officeholders are going to matter," he said.