WASHINGTON — To hear Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich tell it, he and Democratic President Bill Clinton were political partners in the 1990s, lowering unemployment, balancing the federal budget and keeping the nation's economy in robust health.
"I worked with President Clinton ... and we ended up with about 11 million new jobs in a four-year period, went down to 4.2 percent unemployment," Gingrich said in a recent debate, suggesting that as president, he could do it again.
In fact, the economy wasn't as rosy as he's claiming during his time in leadership. And the Clinton-Gingrich relationship was marked by intense cycles of warfare and courtship. The major economic boost while they were both in power, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, was the product of compromise that enraged their respective political bases. And it inspired this pair of outsized personalities to huddle over secret plans for a centrist coalition to help them step around the purists on Social Security and Medicare reform. Only the House's impeachment proceedings against Clinton blew those plans apart.
"I like the guy so much I want to do a deal with him," Gingrich, then the House speaker, confessed to his outraged lieutenants during a government shutdown almost exactly 16 years ago, according to a book about the stormy Clinton-Gingrich partnership.
"I respect his ability to think and do," Clinton said of Gingrich this week on Fox News Channel. "And I eventually hammered out a really productive relationship with him."
At the brink of the 2012 election year, Gingrich is in strong contention for the Republican presidential nomination and is casting himself as the most electable candidate in the GOP field against Democratic President Barack Obama. He cites his two decades in the House, four years as speaker and knowledge of history as ample preparation for helping the economy recover from recession.
As he has all year, Gingrich is hitching his presidential hopes to the relatively healthy economy of the 1990s.
"For four years, we balanced the budget and paid off $405 billion in debt," Gingrich said in May as he kicked off his campaign. "We've done it before. We can do it again."
Sometimes, he mentions Clinton.
During a debate Saturday night, Gingrich cited his work with Clinton, the 11 million jobs created and the low unemployment figure of 4.2 percent. When Gingrich became speaker in January 1995, the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent. When he left office four years later, the rate was 4.3 percent.
Other times, he leaves out Clinton — even though presidents have the highest-profile role in economic policy and therefore get most of the credit or blame for what happens on their watch.
"When I was speaker, our budget was balanced and 11 million jobs were created," Gingrich says in a campaign ad released this week.
Still, Gingrich's version is a potent message for an angry electorate this holiday season, as Americans struggle to get or keep jobs, pay their holiday bills and hang onto whatever trust they still have in government leaders who have spent the year making big decisions only under threat of catastrophe.
Gingrich did contribute to the economy of the 1990s, according to an account of the Clinton-Gingrich talks of 1996-98, which resulted in a balanced budget act — and more.
"It's a fair claim for him to make," says Steven M. Gillon, who won Clinton and Gingrich's cooperation for his 2008 book, "The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation." For a "very fertile period ... they worked behind the scenes crafting significant legislation that had a positive impact on the economy. And they were doing so at great risk."
"Conservatives didn't trust him," recalled John Feehery, an aide at the time to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, who chaperoned Gingrich to meetings with the president to keep them from making deals. Throughout the four years Clinton's aides, too, maneuvered to keep the president and House speaker from being alone together, according to Gillon's book.
As part of the 1997 balanced budget deal, Gingrich agreed to a proposal to give block grants to states to pay for health care for uninsured children who didn't qualify for Medicaid. The deal forced Republicans to swallow a major new entitlement, the largest expansion of taxpayer-financed health insurance coverage for children since Medicaid began in the 1960s.
Many Republicans saw the State Children's Health Insurance Program as too much government involvement in private industry and a step toward the mandated health insurance championed by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gingrich not only supported the idea, he backed SCHIP's reauthorization in 2007.
The budget deal marked a change in the pair's relationship from the days after the 1994 Republican "revolution" that made Gingrich speaker — and the two government shutdowns the following year. By striking the massive budget act, "They realized they could accomplish more by working together, even if that meant abandoning the liberal and conservative wings of their respective parties," Gillon writes.
Gingrich and Clinton tried to do even more together, convening a secret meeting on Oct. 28, 1997, in the Treaty Room of the White House on revamping Social Security and Medicare — for which centrists would be the key to passage, Gillon wrote. The plan was for Clinton to propose reforming entitlements in his State of the Union speech, while Gingrich would respond with supportive words. But a week before the president's annual speech to the nation, the story broke about Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"I knew it was over," Gingrich reflected of his partnership with Clinton, according to the book. Under fire from conservatives after his own lieutenants tried to overthrow him, Gingrich left Congress in January 1999. The House impeached Clinton on charges connected to his testimony about an affair, but the Senate acquitted him.
Fast-forward a dozen years, and Gingrich is casting his role in the 1990s economy his way.
"This country has enormous potential ... to balance the budget, as we did for four years when I was speaker," Gingrich said on Fox News.
In fact, the national debt went up, not down, during the four years Gingrich was speaker. In January 1995, when he assumed the leadership position, the gross national debt was $4.8 trillion. When he left four years later, it was $5.6 trillion, an increase of $800 billion.
As for annual deficits, he did not preside over a four-year period of balanced budgets. In the 1996 and 1997 budget years, the first two years he influenced as speaker, the government ran deficits. In 1998 and 1999, the government ran surpluses.
Washington achieved surpluses for two years after that, making four consecutive years of black ink. But Gingrich only had a hand in the first two.