Chimpanzee Politics

December 06, 1994

Having suggested last Sunday that House Democrats change their symbol from the tough and long-lived donkey to the brainless Scarecrow, we now propose to House Republicans they change theirs from the majestic elephant to the chimpanzee.

As they voted yesterday for Newt Gingrich to become speaker of the House, Republicans chanted "Newt! Newt! Newt!" and vowed war not only against House Democrats but, in the words of Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas, who nominated the unopposed Representative Gingrich, "we will also be doing battle with the liberal media."

A little exuberance is certainly understandable in a party that has not been in power in the House for 40 years, but you could almost visualize these Republicans with knuckles dragging the floor as they hopped around in celebration.

We don't choose this symbol lightly. Speaker-to-be Gingrich has compared himself to the head chimpanzee, so to speak. He has cited as a guide to his thinking a book entitled "Chimpanzee Politics" by Frans de Waal. The author tells how brutish attacks can lead someone to triumph and authority, but he also warns that, "If you keep hammering at the enemy you have defeated, you may be eliciting a coalition against you."

In a different way, retiring House Republican Leader Robert Michel said the same thing to his party and their new leader in his valedictory. Mr. Michel warned that in order to get things done in Congress the parties have to trust each other. Mr. Gingrich has not begun his leadership of the House in a way calculated to bring about trust on the part of Democrats. Or respect on the part of independents and Democrats whom Republicans would do well to court for their coalition.

If what was on display this weekend was a preview of Speaker Gingrich's politics, we would expect trouble for him. His reckless charge (based on a vague estimate by an unnamed and uncredentialed source) that many White House staff members used illegal drugs in the past is McCarthyism warmed over for a new age.

As is his charge that the White House is a center of "the counter-culture." What does that mean? That many people who work (and perhaps live) there have experimented with illegal recreational drugs, avoided military service during the Vietnam War -- and even spoke against the war? So what? Next Gingrich did, too. That was then, this is now.

Republicans who care about their agenda better calm Mr. Gingrich down. Behavior like this is not going to advance his and their cause. He can't complete the agenda in two years; it would take more than one election. As historian Gingrich himself pointed out yesterday, "We all have to remember that twice in the last 48 years Republicans held the majority for just one term. No Republican majority has been re-elected since 1926." He then said, "If we are to break that pattern, we are now faced with a challenge if we are to be worthy of being re-elected." That means being responsible.

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