Now GOP has weaker hand in Congress vTC

November 06, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It was a sober House Speaker Newt Gingrich who faced the somber music of Tuesday's congressional

election results. The Republican Party's loss of at least five House seats in the sixth year of President Clinton's presidency, when history says the out-party usually gains about 35, could not be sugar-coated with the usual Gingrich spin.

"We have to look carefully at what happened and at what lessons Republicans have to learn," he said. For a self-professed political expert and historian who at one point had been predicting a Republican gain of 30 to 40 seats, Mr. Gingrich sounded uncharacteristically at a loss for a rationale.

But other Republicans weren't similarly in the dark. They were quick to charge that their party under the congressional leadership of Mr. Gingrich, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had blown the elections. The trio was accused of failing to come up with an appealing agenda to combat Mr. Clinton's and the Democrats' record of economic good times, and the Democratic pitch to save Social Security and improve public education and health care.

Heaps of scorn

Beyond that, Mr. Gingrich's fingerprints on the ill-conceived scheme to run 11th-hour television ads reminding voters of the Clinton sex-and-lies scandal drew particular expressions of scorn from fellow Republicans. Moderate Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, easily re-elected, observed that "If you make it a referendum on a president with a 67-percent approval rating, you shouldn't be surprised if the election goes against you."

Mr. Gingrich got criticism as well from the right wing of his party, to which he once was its darling. Christian conservative leaders like Gary Bauer deplored the party's failure to push social conservative themes hard enough, and James Dobson, the prominent Christian broadcaster, told the Associated Press: "When the team is losing, you get rid of the coach."

Such talk is not what Mr. Gingrich needs, having barely escaped being deposed as speaker last year by rebellious former foot soldiers in the House, and having worked since then to improve on a high public disapproval rate for a possible presidential bid in 2000. If Mr. Gingrich as a presidential candidate seemed far-fetched before Tuesday's elections, the notion seems close to laughable now.

Mr. Gingrich did gather his wits sufficiently to point out that the Republicans had now held control of Congress through three straight elections, after having toiled in the political wilderness of minority status in the House for 40 years before the "Gingrich revolution" of 1994. But with the GOP probably holding a 12-seat advantage in the House next year, the Democrats will need to pick up only six seats in 2000 to regain control. Independent Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who was re-elected Tuesday, usually votes with the Democrats.

The congressional elections were not a referendum on the impeachment of Mr. Clinton. But the Democratic gains in the House, and the failure of the Republicans to pick up even one of the five seats they needed for a filibuster-proof Senate, were quickly seized upon by Democratic leaders as proof that voters want the impeachment process to end.

Losing strength

Mr. Gingrich over the past nine months had vacillated between keeping his mouth shut on the Clinton scandal and advising his colleagues to do the same, and going after Mr. Clinton directly. Now he must face the next two years of dealing with him with a slightly weakened hand in terms of numerical Republican strength, and with critics in his own party sniping at him.

This state of affairs is a far cry from the heady days just four years ago when Mr. Gingrich proclaimed his "Contract With America" as a kind of American Magna Carta that was going to set the country on a new course of smaller government, lower taxes and less intrusion into business matters and personal lives. It's a low ebb for the man who seemed to think then he was co-president.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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