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A Capitol Chameleon : What Will Newt Gingrich Do Next?

August 25, 1991|PETER OSTERLUND | Peter Osterlund writes about politics from the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun.

Fittingly, the book received greatest notice for an unusual promotional deal paid for by a group of conservative political supporters. After all, Gingrich had single-mindedly pursued reports that Speaker Jim Wright essentially laundered excess earnings through his own book deal, leading to an ethics investigation that ultimately drove the Speaker from office. Now, Democrats prayed that Gingrich would be hoisted on his own petard.

Eventually, the special counsel hired by the ethics committee said there was no case against Gingrich. "It was one of the most disappointing days of my life," says one senior Democrat. "I really wanted to see him hang."

So, later, did some people in the White House. During last year's budget summit, Gingrich, as a leader, sat at the table while negotiators from both parties attempted to hammer together a five-year, deficit-busting deal. While the others bickered, Gingrich read pulp novels. "It was incredible, the arrogance of it," fumed one participant.

He said little during the negotiations--until the morning when the negotiators gathered in the Cabinet Room of the White House to present the package to President Bush. "I can't support this," Gingrich announced to the slack-jawed group. The package raised taxes without including the "economic growth measures"--especially a cut in the capital gains tax rate--that he had sought. The President and the rest of the negotiators marched outside to the Rose Garden to present their deal. Gingrich exited by another door, drove up to the Hill and began to lay strategy for the destruction of the very agreement he'd been designated to facilitate.

Bush was furious. Moderate Republicans were furious. They believed that Gingrich, as a member of the leadership, had a responsibility to support the President. "He did real damage," says Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.). "It was destructive."

Conservatives, however, were relieved. A few months earlier, they had sat Gingrich down in the office of Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) and "reminded him who elected him and who he was," recalls Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.). "Newt did the right thing."

Thanks largely to Gingrich, the first budget deal was rejected, cementing his reputation as, if not a kingmaker, then a deal-breaker. A second version--a similar one--was adopted, though that did little to change impressions. "I think," says Amabile, "he went after Bush for the same reason he went after Tip O'Neill."

Gingrich denies that. "It was a bad package" that risked tipping the economy into a recession and putting people out of work to satisfy some "abstract concept of deficit reduction," he says. "If numbers start to drive policy, you have a sort of mindlessness, almost nihilism of government, in which you end up making decisions that make no sense."

Lines like that drive some otherwise reasonable people to thoughts of homicide. After all, aren't Newt and the COSers the ones who have been bellowing for years about a balanced-budget amendment? Isn't that an abstract concept? "The guy's a chameleon," grumbles one Republican colleague.

Likewise, Gingrich had for years been calling for a radical overhaul of the Social Security system. But when Democrats started agitating last year for a cut in the Social Security payroll tax--a move that Administration officials argued would undermine the integrity of the system--Gingrich smelled political gold. He became a champion of Social Security and gleefully distributed buttons that read "Save Social Security, Vote Republican."

"Oh, you can find more examples of chameleon-like behavior than that," he concedes. "Look, I believe in pragmatism. But, it's tautological. Conservatism works. The work ethic works. Strength works. The free market works. Focusing on learning works. Preventive health works. So I can tell you with a straight face I am pragmatic, and as a result I am driven to conservatism. But I'm not dogmatic. I think if non-conservatism works, I'll look at it, too. It just doesn't work as well."

WHAT IS NEXT? GINGRICH will state repeatedly: "I want to be Speaker." That, of course, requires the support of a majority of House Republicans, who elevated him to the whip's post by a mere two-vote margin. Once current Republican leader Bob Michel retires, says former Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, "Newt's going to have a lot of competition." If the Republicans ever become the majority, Coelho says, "a different set of criteria takes over."

Gingrich's dream won't be realized, either, unless Republicans gain control of the House, a feat they have not managed since 1952. But like a die-hard Red Sox baseball fan, Gingrich says next year might see a turnaround in the fortunes of House Republicans, who now labor under a 103-seat deficit.

"This is America. There's a one-in-three chance," he says. "Harry Truman picked up 76 seats in 1948. The (Gulf War's) been won, and quickly. Assume the recession is clearly over in the fall, and you get the Democratic presidential candidates you are likely to get . . . . They're going to have a convention in New York City--as it collapses--of AIDS activists, left-wing environmentalists, ultra-feminists, unilateral disarmers and random professional politicians, with a mixture of union bosses thrown in."

He pauses, checking to make sure the lesson has sunk in. The turboprop hits an air pocket, but the professor doesn't shift his gaze. "You tell me, which party will be on the winning side of history?" Undoubtedly, he implies, the one that has Newt Gingrich on its side.

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