IN DECIDING TO step down as Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich spared his party a period of agony from which it could only have emerged weaker.
The Georgia Republican's announcement Friday came only three days after the GOP lost five House seats in midterm elections that became a referendum on his leadership and Republican conduct of the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
The embarrassing losses in the U.S. House contrasted with significant statehouse wins by moderate gubernatorial candidates who appealed to nontraditional GOP voters: George E. Pataki in New York, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George W. Bush in Texas, and his brother Jeb Bush in Florida. All emphasized pragmatic solutions and coalition-building, not ideology and partisanship, in their successful appeals to voters.
Even before Mr. Gingrich's announcement, Henry Hyde, the Illinois congressman guiding impeachment proceedings, gave the first signal that House Republicans were beginning to face reality. He said hearings would be brief, probably calling only Kenneth Starr and one other witness to discuss whether the president lied under oath.
While an appearance by Mr. Starr would be lively and a debate about the president's responses under oath elucidating, it is too bad Judiciary Chairman Hyde and his fellow Republicans did not immediately muster the courage to apply the Aiken principle -- named for a Vermont senator who proposed a novel way to end the Vietnam war -- declare victory and call the whole thing off.
That's what voters indicated they want -- an end to the partisan wrangling in Congress, unless Mr. Starr has more compelling evidence to bring.
Mr. Hyde's request to President Clinton to admit or deny 81 assertions in the Monica Lewinsky affair is another reminder that this case is about politics, not impeachable offenses. The chairman made the request, he said, to expedite the hearings and conclude the matter by year's end. And yet if Mr. Clinton were to answer the questions, most already posed by Mr. Starr, it would not shorten the proceedings. Rather, it would begin the debate anew, while moving the circus to another ring.
If, as Mr. Hyde acknowledged, the momentum has gone out of the impeachment drive, but he still feels that the House is duty-bound to proceed, the Judiciary Committee might want to consider the late George Aiken's solution -- declare victory and get out of the quagmire. It would be greeted with a standing ovation from the people.
Now -- with Mr. Gingrich's decision not to remain as Speaker -- the national Republican Party can begin to come to grips with the future. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott got it right when he said, "We need to listen more carefully to the people." Mr. Gingrich was incorrect when he told party leaders earlier, "The country is hanging in the balance." No, it was the GOP and Mr. Gingrich's leadership that were hanging. But now the GOP can get back on track.
Pub Date: 11/08/98