Both Parties Handle Gingrich's Travails
House Speaker's 'fumbles' cause some concern among GOP freshman players How
WASHINGTON — NEWT GINGRICH called a press conference last week to mark the apex of his legislative career: the shipment of a balanced-budget bill to the White House.
But apart from a few terse statements, the usually loquacious Republican House Speaker stood with his hands clasped at his waist as Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas manned the lectern. After mumbling "thank you," Mr. Gingrich bolted.
By any measure, November was a rotten month for the snowy-haired Georgian. The federal shutdown, a string of incendiary comments, and allegations of campaign-spending improprieties have harpooned his approval ratings.
While some House Republicans say that Gingrich's speakership is not in jeopardy, recent events have cast clouds over his authority, and his public role.
To preserve their "revolution," some Republicans say, they must work harder to draw distinctions between their conservative message and its primary messenger.
"Newt is the philosophical leader of the revolution - no two ways about it," says Rep. Robert Erlich, a Maryland freshman. "But the agenda has always been more popular in polls than the Speaker himself.... When the debate centers on vision, we win. When it devolves into personality, we lose."
At a meeting last week, House Republicans say Gingrich admitted making some "tactical mistakes." Likening himself to a quarterback who has been throwing "interception after interception," Gingrich suggested he might "bench himself."
Indeed, Gingrich's command of the GOP offense seems to be slipping, especially among freshmen. First-term Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana says Gingrich "realizes he's been beat up," and has made an effort recently to "listen harder" to members - particularly freshmen, who often feel trapped between the dictates of the leadership and the concerns of their constituents. Some freshman, Souder says, are "telling Newt that 'you won't be Speaker if I'm not [reelected].' "
As Gingrich's troubles mounted last week, a group of moderate "Blue Dog" Republicans, many of them recent party-switchers, formed an alliance with Senate moderates: a move some interpret as an attempt to sidle away from the Speaker.
"People [in Congress] are trying to figure out how to differentiate themselves from Newt, to find points of independence," says a Republican pollster who requested anonymity. In focus groups, the pollster says, voters agree with much of what Gingrich is trying to do, but say he should "try to shut up a little more often."
Yet two of Gingrich's closest allies, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas and House Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana, say the attacks on Gingrich, fueled by Democrats, have neither diminished the Speaker's effectiveness, nor slowed the party's momentum. When asked about Gingrich's reaction to recent attacks, Mr. Armey replied: "He hasn't said anything to me about it."
Indeed, the Speaker's penchant for controversy is not new. His off-the-cuff remarks, like his refusal to wear makeup for television appearances, reflect his unabashed political style.
According to Souder, Gingrich's rhetorical style comes from his tenure as a history professor at West Georgia College. "Newt works in a dialectic," Souder says. "He'll make an inflammatory statement, then he will define it and define it until, in the end, it's not even that conservative." Problems arise, Souder adds, when the media doesn't provide context.
Arguably, the Speaker's woes are partly the result of a freewheeling political climate he helped create. In the 1980s, Gingrich's attacks on the ethics of former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright led to Mr. Wright's resignation and earned Gingrich a reputation as a "bomb thrower."
"He has always been flamboyant, assertive, and aggressive," says Michael Binford a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "When he gets to talking, he shoots from the hip."
So why is Gingrich in the soup all of a sudden? Some Republicans, including Gingrich himself, have cited one reason: fatigue. This has been one of the busiest years in congressional history.
"He's been working as hard as anybody can work," says Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays (R). Gingrich has been coordinating committees and negotiating with the Senate on hundreds of matters, getting "bogged down" in projects and tactics rather than focusing on vision and strategy.
"When Newt is rested and in his element, no one can touch him," Mr. Shays says. "When he's tired and angry, he's a mere mortal who makes mistakes."
Yet the weeks to come promise more tests. A federal court is redrawing the boundaries of his suburban Atlanta district. Other Republicans will likely assume more of the public speaking load, but Gingrich will be dogged by ethics questions.
Last week, the Federal Election Commission filed a civil suit alleging that the political action committee he founded and ran until early this year illegally funded his reelection campaign in 1990. Gingrich has dismissed the ethics charges as "phony," and denied that he will assume a lower profile. "With responsibility comes vulnerability," Congressman Livingston says of Gingrich's predicament. "He's the target and everybody's shooting."