Gung-ho Gingrich

SOME observers have expressed concern over Rep. Newt Gingrich's election as the Republican whip in the House of Representatives. Congressman Gingrich, they worry, is fiercely partisan, even polarizing. Gingrich has certainly been no wallflower in advocating strongly rightist views, and he's stepped on toes. He led the ethics charge against Speaker Jim Wright. Even the House GOP leader, Rep. Robert Michel, made no secret of his opposition to the Georgian.

Gingrich's election to the No. 2 spot in the Republican House leadership appears contrary to the spirit of bipartisanship that's been a theme of President Bush's first months in office. But bipartisanship takes different forms. For 36 years, the bipartisanship in the House between the Democratic majority and the Republican minority has resembled the ``bipartisanship'' between Russia and Latvia. Gingrich's election is a dose of perestroika.

So resigned have some House Republicans become to their status as a permanent minority that they operate less as a loyal opposition than as the designated fall guy in pro wrestling. Now, Gingrich's GOP colleagues have put a political black belt into the ring.

The 87 to 85 vote broke down along generational lines as much as ideological ones; young Turks revolting against mossbacks.

But ideas certainly had a hand in Gingrich's ascendancy. Not just the substance of the ideas he champions - on this there is fairly wide GOP consensus - as much as Gingrich's willingness to wage a battle of ideas, his readiness to define issues sharply and force Democrats to do the same.

Above all, the choice was the triumph among House Republicans of hope over resignation; many - including some moderates who don't always agree with him - just liked his spirit.

Gingrich won the support of his GOP peers for a campaign to revitalize their party. Now he must demonstrate that he can be a national statesman as well as a partisan guerrilla. At times, he'll have to bank his fires to work effectively with Democrats, other GOP leaders, and the White House. Bipartisanship has its uses. He appears to understand this. But he may make it clearer than it's been for a long time that bipartisanship is a two-way street.

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