THERE'S a theory that's been adopted by Washington's so-called political sages that should be tested. These wise men and women who write columns or provide commentary on television are all depicting Newt Gingrich as a wounded Speaker who now will be limping along, playing a relatively secondary role. Indeed, according to this perception of the political realities, majority leader Richard Armey is going to replace Gingrich as the real leader in the House.
We tried this out on Mr. Armey the other day when he came to breakfast. Naturally, Armey wasn't about to give this theory any credence. He wouldn't have been expected to tell us - if it were true - that he was emerging as the de facto leader of the House.
Instead, Armey said he would continue to play a lead role in "implementing" legislation and Gingrich would still provide leadership in shaping policy and in bringing forth the final legislative package.
Armey indicated that he believed Sen. Trent Lott now was the top Republican in Congress. But, he said, there had been "special circumstances" in 1994 that made it logical that Gingrich would be leading the Republican effort to reform government. Those circumstances, he said, had changed well before the ethics charges had been brought against Gingrich.
What Armey seemed to be describing was a speakership that, he felt, had returned to normalcy some time ago, one in which Gingrich would simply be continuing to perform in a normal - not an extraordinary - way and where he, Armey, would be operating as a normal second in command to the Speaker.
As I walked out of the breakfast session I heard some reporters saying, in effect, that Armey - no matter what he said - now was the "Big Man" in the House. "What else could he say today?" one of them asked, adding: "He knows that Newt is wounded and that he now must carry the load."
Well, I have a different point of view.
Barring Gingrich somehow still being forced out of his position as Speaker, I think Newt will - as I've written before - continue being Newt. He will not be the commanding presence he was for quite a while, starting in 1994. He certainly won't be rising again to the position where he was actually overshadowing the president and setting the nation's agenda.
But even a Gingrich whose reputation has been badly tarnished by the House ethics subcommittee's findings won't, in my opinion, be able to sit quietly on the sidelines for very long.
And why would anyone really expect Gingrich to hold himself out of the limelight when he really feels that all he has done wrong is to have been guilty of bad judgment? He's sorry that this bad judgment on his part has entangled the House in controversy - but that would seem to be about all he's apologizing for.
Oh, yes, Newt has been severely wounded by the House committee's misconduct verdict and its recommendation that he be reprimanded by the full House.
But Newt Gingrich is a remarkable fellow. He is - as he often reminds us - the first Republican Speaker to succeed himself in 68 years. And in the short time he's been in that office, Gingrich often has been described as one of three or four of the most influential Speakers in history.
Poor public image
No, he isn't well liked. Polls show him very unpopular, even with Republicans. He earned that unpopularity by allowing himself to be put in the position of looking as if he closed down government. Also, his confrontational style puts off a lot of people. And the millions of dollars the Democrats put into anti-Gingrich television spots did much to mar his public image.
I predict that Newt will be back. He will be a little quieter at first. But he'll be running things. Armey was telling us the way it is - and will be - unless, of course, the Democrats still find a way to force Gingrich out.
Now the 'Big Man' in some eyes, majority leader Armey sees himself operating as a normal second in command.