The Gingrich Era

In the Bible story, Moses led the children of Israel to the promised land, but he could not lead them into it. Not Speaker Newt Gingrich: He not only helped lead House Republicans at the end of their 40 years in the wilderness of minority status, he went on to lead them through four tumultuous years in the majority as well.

From the day in 1978 when he was elected as the only GOP House member from Georgia, Gingrich plotted the strategy that would finally sweep Republicans into control of the House for the first time since 1955. With Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and others, he crafted the largely successful Contract with America for the 1994 campaign.

But as he was leading the troops to victory, Gingrich laid the groundwork for the mistakes that limited his effectiveness and allowed Democrats to turn him into a public bogeyman. It was a caricature that was unfair, but one that Gingrich himself contributed to. The Georgian's partisan attack-dog style as minority whip served him poorly in power.

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The new Speaker failed to realize that he could no longer think out loud in front of the press. His words had immediate consequence and were interpreted as GOP policy, often to the embarrassment of colleagues whom he had not yet consulted on the matter in question. His biggest mistake was allowing the president to tag congressional Republicans with responsibility for the 1995-96 government shutdowns - even though the president helped cause the shutdowns.

Gingrich also gave insufficient attention to ethics charges from his Democrat opponents. His emissaries provided the House ethics committee with incorrect information, which led to a $300,000 penalty in early 1997. It narrowed Gingrich's reelection as Speaker to a whisker. That was followed later in the year by a Keystone -cops coup attempt by members of Gingrich's own leadership team.

But the Speaker's problems lay even deeper, and will challenge his successor, whether it be front-runner Bob Livingston of Louisiana or Christopher Cox of California, both widely respected among their peers.

The GOP majority shrank in both the 1996 and 1998 elections, leaving the leadership with such small margins that any dissent could spell defeat on the House floor. And dissent there is: The Republican conference is an incohesive coalition of moderates, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives who disagree on many issues.

The nation has little idea what it owes Gingrich, who plans to retire from the House altogether. He helped restore two-party government in the legislative branch of government. He pushed through important reforms in welfare and agriculture policy, and forced President Clinton to agree to balancing the budget. Under his leadership the House has a more-cohesive organization, with smaller committee staffs, term-limited chairmen, and no more abusive absentee voting. Congress is now subject to the labor and workplace-safety laws it applies to everyone else.

Democrats will be left without their favorite enemy and that will likely be good for the GOP in 2000. Either Livingston or Cox will probably be a more traditional Speaker and less a visionary and lightning rod. Democrats will have to run against Republican ideas rather than the public's dislike of Gingrich. But the White House will lose an important support in foreign policy, a man who knew American and world history, understood the president's role, and was willing to support that role in times of conflict.

It's not clear that any other GOP leader on the Hill has Gingrich's big picture of the world or of US politics, partisan though he was. America may miss that more than it now knows.

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