GOP's 'Palace Coup' Is Over, but Its Impression Is Lasting

The revolt against House Speaker Newt Gingrich had just burned itself out - for the time being. But questions remained: Would Mr. Gingrich be able to remain Speaker when so many of his colleagues in Congress seemed dissatisfied with his performance? And, if so, how long would he be able to withstand this challenge?

In the midst of the controversy, Iowa's Gov. Terry Branstad, head of the Republican Governors Association, came to a Monitor breakfast and threw his support behind Gingrich. He assured us that all 32 GOP governors, "representing 75 percent of the American people," were sticking with the Speaker. His supportive words did much to shore up Gingrich's shaky position.

A surprising revolt

The uprising against Gingrich caught most reporters by surprise, though it had been simmering for a while. It had been known for some time that the conservative members of Congress, particularly those elected in 1994, were unhappy with Newt. They believe that Gingrich is no longer leading a right-wing revolution but, rather, turning into a leader who compromises much too much with the president.

Looking back, I can see that I was given good tips that a revolt was coming. I had called the Speaker to ask him a question for a column - "What kind of mark on this country do you hope to make during your years as Speaker?" - and I expected him to call me back.

But not this time. That's not the kind of subject a Speaker who is fighting for his political life - and wondering whether he would, indeed, have a future - would find time to address.

When Gingrich didn't respond, I was puzzled. But not for long. I soon learned of an abortive "palace coup," where one of Gingrich's top aides - Bill Paxon - had resigned, even though Paxon claimed that he never had departed from his loyalty to the Speaker.

Actually, I had been given another tip - although, again, I didn't recognize it - that Paxon was preoccupied with this political upheaval. He had been invited to a Monitor breakfast and it looked likely that he would meet with the group. But he pulled back from an opportunity he's usually eager to take. Paxon's attention was, indeed, elsewhere.

In retrospect, I now see that some things that don't occur are sometimes quite revealing.

And I'm left with questions that every Washington observer has grappled with by now. The political impact? My reading is that it will impede the Republicans' efforts to push their programs through. The president inevitably becomes less amenable to compromise when negotiating with an opposition that has been weakened by squabbling.

Gingrich - with his top lieutenants now bowing and scraping to him - has gained a tighter hold on the Speaker's position. His foes have been weakened by failing to depose him. They made some bad miscalculations, particularly their supposition that most Republican representatives were sufficiently dissatisfied with Newt to rally behind a move to replace him.

What's next?

Oddly enough, a clear-cut loser - Bill Paxon - may gain the most in the long run. Yes, he loses his position of power in the House. But he emerges as a visible alternative to Gingrich whenever the Speaker leaves office, either voluntarily or because of a revolt somewhere down the road.

There's also speculation now that Gingrich has something else in mind for his future - that he will step down in 1999 to run for president. That's possible.

In the meantime, maybe he will answer my question: What does he hope will be his lasting and remembered achievement as Speaker?

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