Gingrich Departure Seen as Crucial to GOP
By Thomas B. Edsall
The departure of House Speaker Newt Gingrich will remove the Republican Party's leading advocate of using polarizing and divisive strategies to beat Democrats.
The political consequences of Gingrich's decision to abandon the speakership "remain to be seen," said John Morgan, a Republican strategist. "But I don't think you replace a guy like that. I always shudder to think of the loss of Lee Atwater [who died of a brain tumor after orchestrating George Bush's 1988 presidential victory]. We never recovered from that."
Atwater raised to a political art form the tactic of using wedge issues to win the presidency for Republicans in the 1980s. Gingrich followed that example but added new sophistication to the GOP's use of such race-tinged issues as crime and welfare to win control of the House in 1994.
While a number of Republicans share Morgan's sense of loss concerning the speaker, a majority appears to view Gingrich's decision as in the best interest of the party as it struggles to regain momentum after losing five House seats to Democrats in Tuesday's midterm elections.
In the view of some key GOP strategists, Gingrich had not only orchestrated a disastrous 1998 election strategy, but he threatened to endanger both the Republican Party's bid for the White House in 2000 and its prospects for maintaining control of the House.
These strategists believe that removing Gingrich as speaker was crucial to the GOP goal of holding the majorities in both houses of Congress and winning the presidency.
"As people focused on 2000, the risk of having Newt there was too much," said William Kristol, who helped orchestrate the 1994 GOP victory and now edits the Weekly Standard. Gingrich had created the expectation that he could govern the nation from the speaker's office: The result was "both scary and ineffective, the worst of all worlds," Kristol said.
In his highly controversial role as intellectual and political leader of his party, Gingrich was in danger of becoming a major roadblock to Republican presidential candidates seeking to establish their identities and agendas, Kristol said. For the GOP to lose the White House in 2000, he noted, posed the additional danger that Republicans would be swept out of majority control of the House.
Other Republican strategists said Gingrich's continued highly visible and controversial presence would encourage moderate, swing voters inclined toward the GOP to split their ballots. These voters would back either a Democrat for president and a Republican congressional candidate or vice versa, because they would be wary of entrusting the nation to the control of a Republican president tied to a House run by Gingrich, the strategists said.
These assessments of Gingrich's liabilities were sharply disputed by some of his supporters.
"If we are going to have a movement-oriented House that can make collective strategic decisions, you need strong leadership, and that begins with a strong speaker," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and an architect of Republican coalition-building. "No speaker will have the moral authority that Gingrich had, who could say [to a member], 'I brought you into the majority.'‚"
The conservatives who engineered Gingrich's departure will discover that without him there will be a distinct movement to the left, no matter who is elected speaker, Norquist predicted. Power inevitably will be dispersed to committee chairmen who, because of their ties to the interests under their jurisdiction, are inclined to spend more, he said.
"If we had a list of all that [Rep.] Matt Salmon [R-Ariz.] thinks is important, every one is less likely to happen now" with Gingrich out of office, Norquist said, referring to the man whose threat to mobilize anti-Gingrich Republicans was the tipping point in Gingrich's decision to bow out.
Democrats were split in their assessment of the political consequences of a House of Representatives without Gingrich in charge.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who worked on the successful New York Senate campaign of Rep. Charles E. Schumer, said losing Gingrich will be a major setback for the GOP.
"This is a guy who is a spectacular fund-raiser. They would have lost more seats in '96 and '98 without him. He protected them with a hell of a lot of dough," Carrick said.
And stating a view privately shared by many Republicans, Carrick said the GOP is notably lacking in elected officials with an impressive presence or stature. Gingrich, he said, "is the only one [in the GOP] who had a big picture of the world."
Democratic pollster Fred Yang offered a different view. "We have the Republicans in division and disarray now," he said, but "in the long run, it's not good for us. He has been a lightning rod in a way that has been good for the Democratic Party."
As Republicans enter a post-Gingrich era, there is no consensus concerning the legislative or political strategies the party should adopt: The party remains torn between economic and social conservatives.
In addition, there is no agreement on whether the Republican congressional leadership should, during the next two years, attempt to take an aggressive, confrontational approach to its dealings with the Clinton White House and the Democratic minority, or just lay low and try to accomplish the routine business of government through the elections in 2000.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who helped Gingrich design the 1994 "Contract With America," said, "It is up to Republicans in Congress to set the mood to allow a Republican presidential candidate to succeed. We need a much more effective Congress to set the mood for the president on down. Two years of doing nothing, that is a prescription for disaster."
Former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), another Gingrich ally, said the decision to force Gingrich's resignation "amounts to a political decision by House Republicans basically to take a much lower profile and defer until we get a presidential nomination. . . . We [Republicans] want to go back to the days when the speaker was not an issue in our districts."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company