Gingrich was stumbling block to 2000

November 11, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For all the talk about how the loss of five Republican seats in the House was the undoing of Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the end it was the recognition of so many of his colleagues that the face -- and voice -- he put on the Republican Party was too great a burden for it to bear heading toward the next presidential election.

Also, it was their awareness that a less divisive figure than Mr. Gingrich was needed to pull the party together and construct an effective legislative agenda. Mr. Gingrich's toothless posture of budget compromise this fall, and his eventual reliance on campaign attacks on the personally besmirched president played heavily in his demise.

Once again, as in 1996 when President Clinton and the Democratic Party ran successfully against a mythical Republican Dole-Gingrich" ticket, the Gingrich-blessed 11th-hour television ads touching on Mr. Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal enabled the Democrats to zero in on the Republican most voters love to hate.

Indeed, Mr. Gingrich's retirement, in the face of a political reality that certainly would have brought him continued grief had he elected to remain in his powerful job, is not unlike Richard Nixon's own decision 24 years ago to resign the presidency rather than face the music of impeachment in the Watergate scandal.

For all his considerable political savvy and skills, the speaker, like Nixon, let his personal ambitions and insecurities impair his judgment and drive his actions to the point of denigrating his most notable accomplishments. Nixon's probably was his opening to China; Mr. Gingrich's unquestionably was his generalship of the Republican "revolution" that in 1994 brought the party control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

But like many generals who have not been able to match their prowess in the field of battle once the shooting has stopped and they strive for peacetime greatness, Mr. Gingrich found his skills and temperament not nearly as well-suited for leading the GOP in the legislative combat on Capitol Hill and with the Clinton White House.

Having led social conservative ideologues to victory in 1994 only to see his and their "Contract with America" largely founder in the face of opposition from filibustering Senate Democrats, Mr. Gingrich alternately tried compromise and combat and wound up pleasing hardly anybody.

In the months ahead, we are probably going to be treated to a saga of attempted resurrection by a man who, while quitting for now, still has the fires of political combat and redemption burning within him.

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

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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