Gingrich Reemerges From Shadows, Vowing to Put GOP Back in Spotlight
WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich is back.
After lying low for several months - a move sparked by rock-bottom approval ratings - the usually voluble Speaker of the House has turned up the volume on himself again.
At a Monitor breakfast yesterday, the congressman's first since the infamous Monitor breakfast when he complained about his treatment on Air Force One, he acknowledged making tactical mistakes during the "Republican Revolution."
But on principle Mr. Gingrich says he isn't budging. His new strategy is to keep repeating his ideas, for years if necessary, until they become fixed in the debate. "If you are a conservative of the last generation, you can cheerfully know that if you repeat the same message repeatedly, it gets through despite the distortions," he said.
When Gingrich inherited the Speaker's gavel 18 months ago, he predicted that Congress would show "more pro-active reform behavior than the American people have seen since Lyndon Johnson."
By all accounts, Gingrich and his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives have fulfilled this promise, pursuing their agenda with a tenacity unrivaled in modern times.
But the result is anything but Johnsonian. Most of the Speaker's program has been thwarted, and many Republicans face tough reelection contests in November.
As Gingrich's approval ratings sank to Nixonian levels earlier this year, he withdrew from the spotlight for three months of self-examination.
At yesterday's breakfast, Gingrich said his decision to describe the Republican takeover of Congress as a "revolution" may have been misguided and conceded that "there is no doubt" his reputation has been damaged in recent months.
Yet the worst may be over. By any measure, the Speaker has nowhere to go but up in public-opinion polls, and despite his low numbers, he is still a major fund-raising magnet at GOP gatherings nationwide. Even if they don't like what they hear, people listen.
"The last two years have been rocky for the Speaker, but he's learned a lot about the job, and Americans have learned a lot about him," says Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He's an educable person and an innately interesting person. If he continues as speaker long enough, he will be more and more acceptable to the American people."
Mr. Hess notes that another Speaker, Massachusetts Democrat Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, made great strides in popularity during his congressional career, rising from a "political hack to everyone's lovable uncle."
On Capitol Hill, fellow Republicans agree that Gingrich seems to be exhibiting political bounce. "I think he's walked through a very deep and dark valley in our battles over the winter with the president," says Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, a member of the House leadership. "He has come back to provide vision and strategy again."
In some ways, the Speaker has a lot to boast about. Since 1994, Republican issues like balancing the budget and cutting taxes have moved from oblivion to the forefront of the political debate. Even President Clinton has proclaimed "the era of big government" is over.
"If you told me in 1994 that the  presidential campaign would come down to which candidate can implement the basically conservative instincts of the American public," Gingrich says, "I think I would have called that a revolution."
But the task at hand yesterday was helping Republicans get elected in November. Gingrich's role seems to be that of chief critic, working to counter what he calls a "systematic campaign of misinformation" by Democrats and the media's "lack of concern" with the story. When asked if he will take a prominent role in supporting Republican candidates, GIngrich responded: "I'm not here hiding."
But don't expect another Contract With America or any more talk of revolution coming from the House leadership. Instead, Gingrich seems more concerned these days with engineering a congressional leadership machine that is more responsive.
According to colleagues, Gingrich is getting more sleep, learning to delegate responsibility to his deputies, paying more thought to public appearances, and concentrating harder on process. He has relied on consultants like Michael Deaver, a former Reagan aide, and Stephen Covey, author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."
After the GOP budget resolution nearly failed in the House, Gingrich borrowed a page from the military's playbook and launched a comprehensive "after action review" to identify mistakes and prevent them from recurring.
But by no means is everything perfect. Many of the Speaker's more-conservative colleagues, particularly House freshmen, continue to needle him hard when he gives ground to moderates. And Republicans to the right and left of Gingrich have made it clear he is not welcome in their districts before the election.
In addition, an independent counsel is continuing to investigate Gingrich's ties to several nonprofit groups, and he faces an expensive campaign against a wealthy and telegenic Democratic challenger, Michael Coles.
But beyond his immediate problems, observers say, Gingrich has quietly achieved a status few Americans enjoy: symbol-hood. To Democrats, the Speaker is a symbol of unbelievable hubris: a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the political sun. To like-minded Republicans from all walks of life, however, he is one of the finest statesmen to come along in a generation.
Rep. David Macintosh (R) of Indiana likens Gingrich to Indiana University's controversial basketball coach, Bobby Knight.
"You either love him or you hate him," Mr. Macintosh says. "I think Newt has reached that kind of status."