Fall of the house of Newt
An election shock ignites a Republican revolt: Gingrich is only the first victim in the growing fight for the party's future
By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy
Newt Gingrich was still a shaggy rebel in 1993 when he sat down with the new Democratic President to share a drink on the Truman balcony. Clinton worked him hard, oozing charm, grabbing his arm, locking and listening. Newt, the smaller man, had been startled by his size, his friendliness; he liked the guy in spite of himself. Then Clinton leaned forward, and whispered to Newt his big secret, the one that defined his whole life: "I'm a lot like Baby Huey," he told Newt. "I'm fat. I'm ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back. I just keep coming back."
It was a promise, and a warning. Both men believed in the politics of punishment, and by the time their paths crossed in that twilight at the White House, each had shown his capacity for pain. Gingrich's 16 years on the back benches as the most hated member of Congress did not break his heart or his will: when he became Speaker, he promised he would remake the world in the first 100 days. The first thing most voters learned about Clinton was how hard it was to kill him, as he slogged through New Hampshire in 1992, no voice, no sleep, no shame, swatting away his enemies on his bare-kneed crawl to the White House.
But 1998 brought to both men a test of endurance and character that neither could have trained for, and that neither could have predicted would undo the Speaker rather than the President. Even as Gingrich set to sharpening the blades of the guillotine, his adversary stayed on message, made peace in the Middle East, waved John Glenn back into orbit and watched the Dow follow close behind, as Gingrich produced an impeachment spectacle that left voters gagging, and a budget that drew the same response from his own party. By the time the routine midterm election had dissolved into a humiliating defeat Tuesday at the polls, it was suddenly Gingrich whose judgment was challenged, his party mutinous, his tenure as Speaker numbered in days.
If Clinton has always had a gift for turning weakness into opportunity, Gingrich has a gift for turning opportunity into rubble. Newt was the one who made unbalanced budgets a thing of the past, but it was Clinton who somehow got credit for it, rode to re-election, hauled his own party toward a more sensible center and emerged from Tuesday's election America's favorite imperfect leader. Voters might have retired Clinton in 1996 for moving too far to the left had Gingrich not come along and yanked the whole enterprise too far to the right. Gingrich had always been Clinton's best foil, the uglier alternative to whom Clinton kept pointing every time Americans got fed up with the President's inability to govern, stay focused and get things done. As scattered as Clinton can be, Gingrich was always worse, talking about dinosaurs and space colonies and women in trenches.
And then there is the tricky, hard-to-fathom difference in their alloys, maybe their sense of honor. Clinton lied to the nation and his family, messed around with someone half his age, and in 10 months never once showed any sign that he was even thinking of resigning. Gingrich lost a handful of seats over some political miscalculations, and within a few days, and to the complete surprise of everyone around him, quietly stepped down. Clinton has an affair with an intern, and Gingrich loses his job over it.
In the same cloud of outrage and optimism that has been wrapped around him all year, Gingrich took to the phones on the afternoon of Election Day still predicting that the President would be made to pay for his sins and that the Republicans would pick up six to 30 seats. But as the hours passed, the numbers just kept getting worse, and by 10 p.m. the Republicans were barely breaking even in the House. Then another seat looked vulnerable. Then seven more. Then, around 10:45, 13 seats. "At that point, we thought we lost the House," one said later. When the last returns came in, Gingrich had lost five seats--a setback not matched since 1822. "Well," said Gingrich when it was all over, "we all misjudged this one."
The next morning Gingrich held a gripe session by conference call, letting others vent about everything: the Republicans' utter absence of a message, the Democrats' lethally effective get-out-the-vote effort. "They were unbelievable," one of the leaders said to Newt. "They kicked our ass on the ground." Gingrich was mostly quiet. He listened. "He was in a state of shock," says one participant. It was different an hour later during the "listen only" conference call with members. This time Newt talked a lot, but he made no sense. He blamed the election on the unions, on black turnout driven by scare-tactic radio ads, on the fact that the Senate had failed to take up the House's $80 billion tax cut, and of course on the media for hyping the Monica scandal and blotting out the Republican message. Said one member who listened in: "It was very lame and not credible. He just doesn't get it. He's the problem. I don't see how you get over this bump in the road without getting rid of him."
It emboldens the princes to plot, of course, if they think the king has gone mad. Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston, who owed his position to Gingrich, was already calling members, testing out the idea that he might run for Speaker, while others, such as conservative Steve Largent, began sniffing around other leadership seats. Livingston even called Gingrich and suggested in passing that he resign, but Gingrich did not seem alarmed.
For the next 48 hours, the most important struggle within the G.O.P. was between not right and left but loyalty and ambition. Thinking it might be time for a human sacrifice, Newt tossed overboard his handpicked House G.O.P. campaign chairman, John Linder, only to watch Linder repay the favor by going over to the plotters. "All we did was raise all these millions of dollars--more money than we've ever had," said a source close to Linder. "Newt and [G.O.P. consultant Joe] Gaylord's job was to piss it all away." Senate majority leader Trent Lott, Gingrich's old coconspirator, couldn't believe Newt was announcing on the day after the elections that one of the G.O.P.'s priorities would now be "saving Social Security." That was Clinton's program, and Lott was in no mood to walk into a trap.
Everyone Gingrich called for support had a list. His original conservative allies said push impeachment to the wall, cut $100 billion in taxes, schedule an antiabortion vote, cut the International Monetary Fund loose. Moderates were seeking assurances that none of those moves would ever take place. "We are dealing with utter chaos," said an aide.
The final piece of blackmail came from the crown prince himself: Livingston sent the Speaker a 16-point ultimatum calling on Gingrich to agree to its terms for ceding power to him "without exception." The letter was classic Livingston: stern, uncompromising, dictatorial and, it turns out, totally impulsive. A few hours after he sent it, Livingston called Gingrich and said, "Ignore it." By 2 p.m. Friday, Livingston was announcing his own candidacy for the job, likening his great and good friend Gingrich to Winston Churchill and then explaining why it was time for the Speaker to go. By this time, even loyalists were peeling away: Houston Republican Bill Archer, who had pledged his support to Gingrich just a day before, called back to urge him not to hang on. "You might," said Archer, "want to give second thought to this." Coming from the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, that was Texan for "it's over."
By twilight Gingrich gathered his troops to the phones to break the news. Only his departure, he said, would purge the poison from the party. He blasted the "cannibals" who would settle for nothing less than total victory. He urged the troops to stay focused on 2000. "The prospect of an Al Gore presidency and a Democratic Congress ought to scare all of us into mobilization," he said. "I am grateful to each and every one of you. I'll be at the organizing conference. I love all of you. Take care." No one tried to talk him out of it.
That the bottom fell out from beneath him so quickly had less to do with what happened Tuesday than with the battles Gingrich had been fighting to a loss all year long. "True political transformation," Gingrich wrote in his book Lessons Learned the Hard Way, "requires a leader to keep his eye always on the ball and his ear very, very tuned to the people." But professor Gingrich was always better at teaching than doing, and the longer he was Speaker, the further he drifted from the public whose dreams he claimed to understand so well.
The success of the Republican Party has always depended on some artful hospitality, on persuading blue bloods and rednecks and church folk and fat cats to gather under its big tent and celebrate together the blessings of power. And as long as Ronald Reagan was cutting taxes and winning the cold war, his guests were generally content to enjoy his company and not argue too much over who had the best seats at his table. But in the years since, and especially for the past 10 months, the tent poles had been falling down. Gingrich's very triumphs now yielded enormous risks. Having accomplished the heart of his revolutionary agenda--balancing the budget, rolling back government and reforming welfare--there was no clear Stage 2 of the Republican Revolution.
Pragmatists and purists fought all year. The more the G.O.P. leadership tacked abortion- and religious-rights amendments on trade and foreign policy bills, the more the business community sensed that evangelicals were being courted at their expense, and threatened Gingrich and his team with open rebellion. So even as the economic wing won round after round all through the summer, seizing tax breaks for businesses rather than families, funding the IMF and extending most-favored-nation status to China, Gingrich and his team knew they had to have something to give the social conservatives, who had threatened to stay home in November if the party continued to ignore their priorities.
All he had left to give them was the reviled President's head. Social conservatives, led by Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Dr. James Dobson, had flayed Gingrich early on for his judicious silence about Clinton's troubles, until he finally promised never to make another speech without referring to Clinton's "crimes." By September, when Kenneth Starr finally sent his report to Capitol Hill, Gingrich claimed his obligation to the Constitution required that he press ahead full speed with the impeachment inquiry; in reality it was his obligation to his right flank.
Among the people who tried to warn him off the strategy was Ralph Reed, the boy genius who had injected the Christian Coalition directly into the Republican bloodstream in the past decade. Reed, who left the Christian Coalition last year to found his own consulting firm, was sending alarm memos as early as September 1997. He privately warned G.O.P. leaders that "Republicans face the most severe agenda vacuum since Ronald Reagan ascended as their leader in 1980." He urged the national party to "make education a major theme in the 1998 campaign" and "avoid capitulation with Clinton." And four months before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, Reed even cautioned Republicans not to "put all your eggs in the Clinton-scandal basket." It was a warning he would repeat in similar private memos to Gingrich, Lott and other leaders for the next 12 months. In the last one, dated Sept. 23, 1998, Reed predicted that "if we rely entirely on the scandal, we will come up short on Election Day."
But whatever his political miscalculations, Gingrich was also personally incapable of letting Clinton off the hook. It has long been his belief that the Democratic Party as a whole is a corrupt and corrupting force in American politics, and Clinton was its Mephistophelian master. Still bearing the scars of his own ethics troubles two years earlier, Gingrich could not imagine that the President would not suffer a far bloodier punishment for his misconduct. He was, say those close to him, "obsessed" with the Lewinsky affair. "You sit in meetings, and you just watch. He's crazed about it," says one who was there. And so Gingrich was both unable and unwilling to keep his most murderous members in line. The more Bob Barr, the impeachment-fixated House member from Georgia, appeared on TV, the more voters were persuaded the Republicans had only one agenda.
For citizens discouraged by the fact that modern politics seems driven more by polls than principles, it's worth noting how sharp an exception this election was. G.O.P. leaders were proud to ignore what they read. Month after month, the polls held steady, first withholding judgment about Clinton's conduct and then concluding he should stay in office despite what he did. But Gingrich didn't believe them, couldn't bring himself to, since they violated so fundamentally his view of what voters care about and what leaders can get away with. It helped that he has always thought that "independent" polls published by the networks and newspapers were a great source of liberal power, that the questions were always somehow skewed against conservatives. "When all the national polls were coming out," says a Hill source, "everybody's attitude was, 'It's not real.'"
As for the Republicans' own polling operation, it was skimpy--and its results were suppressed or ignored by Republican leaders convinced that they had a truer feel for the country. These politicians mirrored the world they lived in. Being a G.O.P. congressional leader means being surrounded by the choir. Most of the real people you meet are those willing to plunk down $1,000 to attend a fund raiser--people, in other words, who aren't typical of the average voter, even the average Republican. If Gingrich was inflamed by Clinton's perfidy, the fires were fanned by the true believers who surrounded him.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the disastrous round of last-minute ads that Gingrich himself ordered up, reminding voters of the scandal they were so eager to get past. The ads were designed to motivate the Republican constituency and depress Democratic turnout; they seemed to have had the opposite effect, and Republicans blamed Gingrich for the blunder. Two weeks before the election, internal G.O.P. polls indicated that the voters were suddenly drifting away from the party, especially on the West Coast. Focus groups that tested the scandal ads, sources tell TIME, were decidedly lukewarm about them. And spending $10 million on ads in an election in which a low turnout was expected made no sense. Roughly 62% of the people the Republicans were paying to reach didn't bother to vote anyway. The notion that the ads could be tightly targeted to hard-core voters was just naive; most people saw them replayed on the evening news and Larry King.
Last spring Gingrich was boasting to other G.O.P. leaders that they didn't have to do anything, just wait for a crippled President to come to them. And sure enough, nothing resembling an agenda emerged from the Congress. This was the House that never even got around to passing a budget--the first time such a thing had happened since the budget process was established in the wake of Watergate. This guaranteed that Republicans would have little to brag about when they went home to their districts, other than renaming National Airport after Ronald Reagan and passing a fatty transportation bill that made fiscal conservatives shudder. "We say we are the party of keeping our fiscal house in order," says South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford, "but we do a transportation bill that has all kinds of pork and go $20 billion over what we'd shaken on with the budget 12 months before. There's nothing more deadly."
By deciding last summer to wrap all the unfinished business into a single massive spending bill, the Republicans handed Clinton a loaded gun. Failure to pass that bill would mean another government shutdown. That meant Clinton could pick anything he wanted with which to hold them up. With an eye on voters, Clinton chose to pick his fight on education--100,000 new teachers and 5,000 schools, to be precise--forcing Congress to stay around and bicker into October on an issue that played heavily in the Democrats' favor. The only thing the Democrats did wrong, says a Hill staff member, was not to force the G.O.P. to stay in session a week longer. That would have won them back the House.
When the budget deal was cut, the Speaker turned on his own, calling his critics "the perfectionist caucus." That probably lost him the conservatives for good and put Gingrich on the defensive. Just four years after the Contract with America was unveiled, his own followers had become the enemy. The Field Marshal was no longer leading his troops anywhere they were willing to go.
In those giddy days after the 1994 election that made him Speaker, Newt and Marianne Gingrich decided to drive to the Georgia coast for Thanksgiving so they could have time to talk, time to think, time to sort out what had happened to them. Marianne has always been Newt's sounding board, the one to bring him down to earth. And now, as he rhapsodized about the monumental task before him, she did it again. Newt, she told him, this is a lot bigger job than you think it is going to be. And then she offered three words of deceptively simple advice: Fill the role. He wrote down: "Be Speaker."
He related that exchange a few weeks later, on a raw, gray December afternoon. Having gathered his informal brain trust around an oval rosewood table in downtown Washington, he wrote those two words, professor style, on an easel and grinned. But within moments, the man who once said his ambition was to be "the leading teacher of 21st century American civilization" was on to another idea, that of selling a congressional office building so that it could be dismantled and resold in pieces, like the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the profound changes that he was ushering in.
Neither happened. The building still stands, and Gingrich never really got the House to function. Like so many of his ideas, they were things to build briefing books and college courses and provocative speeches around but not to follow through on. He would say time and again that he managed to pass virtually his entire Contract with America in the first hundred days of his first Congress; problem was, virtually none of those proposals made it any further. Yet somehow, for Gingrich, that never seemed to matter. He had made history; making laws seemed secondary.
"He gets bored easily," ultraconservative Paul Weyrich has said of him. Added someone who has worked with him: "He bounces around a lot. He is the most undisciplined person I have ever come across." The qualities that allowed him to lead the revolution in the first place, to rally the backbenchers and aim high and break the walls down, were not well suited to governing once he got there. It took him 16 years to win the Speaker's chair; it took four years for it to become clear that he could no longer keep it.
It's almost hard to remember what the House Speaker was before Gingrich--a back-room fellow, the big man who sat in the House basement and drank bourbon and branch, kept a card file of favors given and received, scores to be settled in the private pathways of the Capitol. He still gets a big car and a big staff and is third in line to the presidency, but his job has always been a perch carved out of persuasion as much as power, especially when the vote is close.
Gingrich and his leadership team stumbled into control of the House after the G.O.P. had endured four decades in the wilderness not knowing such basic things as the name of the Capitol police chief. As a young legislator, he made his mark on the House floor after-hours, when it was almost empty except for the C-Span cameras. He was a grinning nobody, the head of a band of brothers called the Conservative Opportunity Society--he and Bob Walker and Connie Mack and then Congressman Trent Lott, and they didn't have a dollar and didn't know nobody and acted like a bunch of kids in a clubhouse with a small book of matches that they were going to light and blow up the world.
Gingrich was never quite able to change his ways. The late Sonny Bono figured it out early, when he was elected as a Congressman from Palm Springs, Calif., as part of Gingrich's freshman class. Gingrich was marching from news conferences to TV studios with a scrum of aides and photographers in tow. Bono approached with a word of advice. "You're a celebrity now," he told Newt. "The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I've been there. But let me tell you, this is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need to understand the altitude of what you're doing."
Gingrich barely listened. Nothing was going to slow him down on the biggest day of his life. "Yeah," he said. "We'll get around to that."
The new Speaker prided himself on being a manager. He called himself the revolution's chairman of the board. He sent his assistants to military installations to learn management techniques. And he invited FORTUNE 500 chief executive officers to dinner to talk about restructuring large institutions--in this case, he had the U.S. Congress in mind. He rearranged the furniture in the House in ways that will affect every Speaker who follows him: gone are the dynastic committee chairs, who could foil any zealous Speaker's plans; Gingrich scrapped the seniority system and installed his own disciples, some of whom were three and four names down on the list. He abolished other committees and 25 subcommittees and sliced their staffs so that power would devolve to the king, not the vassals.
If Clinton is a prisoner of his appetites, Gingrich is a prisoner of his ego. He kept trying the same strategy again and again, drawing lines in the sand and waiting for his adversary to come across. Except it was Gingrich who always blinked first. In May 1995, when Clinton seemed at his weakest, Gingrich boasted to TIME of his plans to shut down the government and then wait for the President to come crawling, meekly accepting Newt's cuts in Medicare and other government programs. "He can run the parts of government that are left [after the cuts], or he can run no government," Newt said. "Which of the two of us do you think worries more about the government not showing up?" As it turned out, it was Newt.
After the shutdown, Gingrich remorsefully talked of sidelining himself, of having "thrown one too many interceptions." Back then no one knew that this would be his habit. In June 1997 the issue was disaster relief. Republicans loaded the bill with blatantly partisan riders, assuming Clinton wouldn't dare veto it. The President did, within minutes of its landing on his desk, and the Republicans were blamed for flood victims' getting stranded. A coup ensued, but Gingrich prevailed, primarily because there was no obvious candidate to replace him. His response: a 12-point memo on the lessons to be learned from the disaster-relief disaster. Lesson One: "In dealing with Clinton, you must never put yourself in a position where he can be compassionate or self-righteous."
So where was Gingrich last spring? Putting himself in a position in which Clinton could be self-righteous. So confident was Gingrich that the intern scandal would doom the President--despite polls that were already consistently showing that the public didn't care--that he assumed he would have the upper hand in any budget deal. Instead, the public saw the Democrats as the party that was trying to attend to business while the Republicans were distracted by scandal.
All that history made it hard, after the elections last week, for anyone to trust Gingrich with another two years as Speaker. Most may have been willing, once again, to accept his promises of change--change in management, in decision making, in priorities. But there was one thing Gingrich couldn't change. "The problem for the party is that Newt is the face of the party," said a G.O.P. congressional operative on the eve of Gingrich's resignation. "Until we elect a President, he's the most visible spokesman we have. The snake won't die unless you cut off its head."
The only thing certain about Gingrich's successor is that he will strike a lower profile while he wrestles the same alligators. The problem for the party is that the very traditions and mechanisms of the House may prevent the Republicans from finding the leader they desperately need. No member of Congress with the experience, the stature or the chits to be a plausible candidate for Speaker resembles the kind of Republican leader that last week the voters signaled they liked. "We still need to prove that we can be conservative without being mean," said a G.O.P. moderate Senator. In Washington that means finding a handsome, telegenic lawmaker to go on the Sunday talk shows. Outside Washington, in noncongressional races, pragmatic "compassionate conservatives" who talk about inclusion, reach out to minorities, spend time on education, mind the environment and are tightfisted with their budgets coasted to easy victories in state after state: Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, John Engler in Michigan and, above all, the Bush brothers in Texas and Florida. The darlings of the right, the David Beasleys, Fob Jameses and Dan Lungrens, were shown to the exits.
The Republican Party has lacked a unifying figure since before George Bush left the White House, and though the House will elect a new Speaker in January, the search for a new G.O.P. leader will probably take two years. After Tuesday's defeat, Dan Quayle, Steve Forbes, John Ashcroft, Alan Keyes and Lamar Alexander attacked pretty much everyone else for being out-of-touch capitulators. Each man is trying to woo the same activists on the right wing as he heads toward Iowa and New Hampshire--10 kids fighting over the same thin slice of pie.
On the other side of the split are George W. Bush and John McCain, perhaps even John Kasich. McCain sent around a memo calling on the G.O.P. to be a party of inclusion, noting that he, like Bush, won a high percentage of Hispanic voters last Tuesday. The next Republican leader will have to herd these stray cats. Gingrich tried to do it for four years and failed. But in his failure, Gingrich may have succeeded in turning over to his fractious heirs a political map for guiding the party toward coherence.
--Reported by James Carney, John F. Dickerson, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
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