Analysis: For GOP Fighter, a Confrontation He Didn't Want
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 1998; Page A1
The sudden and surprise resignation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) marks the end of one of the most remarkable and tumultuous chapters in the history of American politics.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's election results, with Republicans reeling from unexpected losses and looking for scapegoats, it was clear the Gingrich era was in eclipse. Even if he had held onto his speakership, his power within the party would have been reduced and his voice muted over the next two years. Tuesday's results underscored how much the country has moved since the Republican revolution of 1994.
What was unforeseen, however, was the swiftness with which his speakership came to a close. In the face of a serious challenge to his power, Gingrich decided to spare himself a potentially humiliating loss and his party a long period of turmoil that might only have weakened Republicans for the legislative and political battles of the next two years.
For the past four years, Gingrich has been the national face of the Republican Party and the most powerful speaker of modern times. He was also one of the most partisan and polarizing politicians in the country and one of the most unpopular.
The combination was politically untenable for the party and long before Tuesday's elections, senior Republicans privately talked about the need for the party to usher Gingrich out.
"He cannot get away from what he was," a prominent Republican said last summer. "It's too deeply burned in. There's never been a speaker so visible who is perceived as so partisan. I don't think he can ever come back."
These Republicans believed Gingrich's confrontational style of politics was about to run its course, that the country hungered for bipartisanship and a quieter tone. But they assumed the end would come after the election of 2000, especially if Republicans were to win back the White House. The three-paragraph statement issued by the speaker's office late yesterday took everyone by surprise. "Earthquake, isn't it?" one senior Republican in Washington said when he heard the news. Gingrich was the quintessential backbencher who struggled to make the transition to leadership and majority power. Ultimately he failed. "The very elements that allowed him to be such an effective minority leader have proven to be liabilities to his speakership," said John J. Pitney, a professor at Claremont-McKenna College.
He was at times a worthy adversary to President Clinton, alternately respected and despised at the White House. But in the most consequential battles with Clinton, particularly the budget fight of 1995 that led to the government shutdown and last month when the president got his way on spending priorities in the final days of the 105th Congress, he came out the loser. For all his strategic gifts, he was constantly outfoxed by the president.
But his undoing was also a function of the slender majority he attempted to command in the House and the divisions within his party that neither he nor other leaders have been able to bridge. As much as Gingrich had difficulty making the transition to governing, so did the rebellious Republicans he helped bring to power.
"Everybody celebrated Republicans taking control of Congress for first time in 40 years, but nobody explained it was the smallest majority in 40 years," said Kenneth Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan. "He always had to worry about the outlying members. It's very difficult to govern that way."
Hubris, ego and occasional self-pity surrounded his rise to power. "I think I am a transformational figure," he said in an interview shortly before the 1994 election. "I think I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change, the liberal Democratic machine, have a natural reaction which gets wearying."
But he was also a brilliant strategist who worked tirelessly for two decades to turn his party into the majority in Congress. When no one else believed it could happen, Gingrich did. "I'm essentially a team player," he said a few months ago. In the end, his decision reflected his belief that his party would be better served by his departure, rather than a more characteristic battle to sustain his power.
What he concluded was that, even if he survived as speaker, he faced an almost impossible task in governing, that his party could descend into chaos and cannibalism. "He came to the forefront as a backbencher and he decided not to take any more from the backbenchers 20 years later," said a Republican who has been close to Gingrich over the years.
Gingrich came to Congress in 1978. Twice he had lost races for the House. When he finally won, even before he had been sworn in, he went to see the chairman of the party's congressional campaign committee. What the party needed, he said, was a long-term plan to take over the House. It was an audacious display of the way Gingrich approached politics. He thought big and he rarely doubted his own skills.
Four years later, after his party had suffered unexpectedly large losses in the 1982 midterm elections, he went to see former president Richard M. Nixon in New York. Nixon told him no single person could change the House, that he needed to put together a team of young turks who would challenge the status quo and develop a set of ideas around which the party could grow.
Gingrich returned to form the Conservative Opportunity Society, a small band of younger conservatives who practiced guerrilla warfare against the heavy Democratic majority. They used the power of C-SPAN to spread their message to Republican activists around the country, standing for hours in an otherwise empty chamber, giving speeches attacking the liberal welfare state.
Eventually they got under the skin of then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who ordered the stationary cameras to pan the chamber to prove that the rebels had no audience. It only served to spur them on. The Gingrich-led rebels not only angered Democrats, they irritated their own party leaders, who preferred the get-along-go-along coziness of the House. Gingrich believed that represented the route to permanent minority status.
Gingrich made ethics a singular pursuit, seizing on every transgression by a Democrat to build the case of a party corrupted by power. That led to his riskiest adventure as a backbencher, the war against Jim Wright, the Texas Democrat who was speaker of the House in the mid-1980s.
Against advice of his closest advisers, Gingrich pursued Wright over a series of ethics allegations, which led to an ethics committee investigation and in the spring of 1989 to Wright's resignation. In his valedictory speech, Wright condemned the "mindless cannibalism" that has taken over the House. Democrats were never to forgive Gingrich for his role in Wright's demise.
It was that same year that Gingrich made the leap from back bench to leadership. At the time it seemed unthinkable. This was a man who had fought his own leaders over policy and who had labeled then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) the "tax collector for the welfare state." But when an opening came in the Republican whip's office in 1989, Gingrich leapted into the race. He consolidated his conservative base, reached out to moderates frustrated by their minority status and won the post by two votes.
But in joining the leadership, Gingrich refused to toe the line, and in 1990 helped lead a revolt against President George Bush that created a deep schism within the party.
Bush's White House had negotiated a budget agreement with the Democrats in the late summer of 1990. When Gingrich saw the final plan, he objected to the tax increases in it and refused to get aboard. Instead of joining other lawmakers for a Rose Garden ceremony to bless the pact, he trooped back up to Capitol Hill to help lead the opposition that helped sink the plan when it first came to a vote.
In retrospect, the budget battle marked the opening round of Gingrich's campaign to become the first Republican speaker of the House in four decades. By this time, Gingrich presided over a growing empire of political organizations that he used to spread his conservative gospel and attract recruits to his cause. He helped recruit candidates, offered strategic and substantive advice, aided in party fund-raising and was above all the chief cheerleader for becoming the majority in Congress.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company