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Has Anyone Heard From the Speaker?

Gingrich isn't leading, and the Republican revolution risks running aground.

March 16, 1997|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur, a Republican commentator and analyst, is a visiting instructor at UC Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies

Whatever happened to Newt Gingrich?

Only two years ago, Gingrich was the unquestioned leader of the Republican revolution. He was more than merely speaker of the House; he was a teacher for a generation of conservative activists eager to assume their new majority status.

But now, two government shutdowns, a shrunken majority and a bitter ethics battle later, the teacher no longer teaches. The leader no longer leads. The speaker hardly even speaks.

When Gingrich sought reelection as speaker when the new Congress convened in January, implicit in his candidacy was the promise that he would provide Republicans with the same fiery, passionate leadership that characterized his first term in that position. No other Republican, it was argued, could provide the same direction and cohesion that the party would need to face down a reelected president and his reinvigorated followers.

Even as whispers about his weakened authority grew louder, most House Republicans believed that Gingrich was uniquely qualified to help them regain control of Washington's ideological agenda. So with only a few exceptions, they fell in line behind the Georgian, knowing that he would repay their continued loyalty with his continued leadership.

But since his reelection, Gingrich has been conspicuous only by his reticence. In recent weeks, there have been occasional Gingrich sightings in and around the Capitol, but even these few public appearances have been notable for their lack of energy and engagement.

Two weeks ago, he appeared briefly at a Capitol Hill news conference to participate in the announcement of the House Republicans' legislative priorities for the year. The contrast from two years ago could not have been more striking. In 1995, Gingrich dominated media coverage by personally driving the "contract with America" through Congress. This year, he was barely in evidence, surfacing only to lend his support to an agenda largely crafted by California Rep. Christopher Cox. Gingrich left the event without taking press questions, leaving his lieutenants to answer queries about whether he was even involved in House leadership operations.

House Republicans are just as committed to their party's cause as they were after the 1994 elections. The passion is still there. What's missing is the leadership. As a result, the Republican agenda has received little notice and met with even less success. In recent weeks, congressional Republicans have faced high-profile votes on three key issues for conservatives: a balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits and funding for family planning. Operating under an every-member-for-himself legislative strategy, they came out with nothing. A stronger, more assertive Gingrich would not have guaranteed victory on any of these fronts, but without any real leadership and direction. his party was outflanked by the Democrats at every turn.

The president, meanwhile, has quickly moved into the vacuum. Despite continuing questions about whether he forfeited the country's China policy over a couple of double decafs from the White House mess, Clinton has been able to maintain control over the broader policy debate.

Clinton's proposed budget is almost $100 billion out of balance and it delays more than 90% of its proposed cuts until after he leaves office. His Justice Department is intervening to stop the implementation of Proposition 209 in California. He has called for tax breaks for companies that choose to hire welfare recipients at the expense of the working poor who have fought to stay off of public assistance.

But on each of these occasions and a dozen others, Republicans have responded with a cacophony of disconnected criticism. In America, politics is personality, and a dozen or more competing Republican spokespersons cannot project a coherent alternative, no matter how credible their individual agendas may be.

Gingrich is understandably gun-shy in the aftermath of his own ethics investigation. But he still possesses the same intellect, the same strategic capabilities and the same conservative vision that brought him to the cutting edge of American history in 1994. He just doesn't seem that interested in using them.

With any luck, Gingrich will snap out of his funk in time for Republicans to reengage more forcefully in Washington's public policy debate. But a defanged speaker is not the leader we thought we were getting. For the sake of his party, Gingrich has to reenter the fray or turn the speaker's gavel over to someone who will.

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