WASHINGTON -- Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said on television the other day that he's "probably" going to announce within the next week or so "that I'm not going to run."
For president, that is. Maybe it's because he's under the impression that he already is president. Or more likely because reality has newly jumped up and hit him in the face.
The latest Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today reports that 59 percent of voters surveyed disapprove of the job he's doing, to only 27 percent who approve. On his handling of the budget debate, it's even worse: 62 percent disapprove, 19 percent approve. The latest CBS News poll finds that even among Republicans,
more (47 percent percent) say they disapprove of how he's doing as speaker than approve (42 percent).
Given these numbers, Mr. Gingrich saying he probably won't run for president is a bit like Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns who is moving the team to Baltimore, announcing he probably won't run for mayor of Cleveland.
Matters have reached such a state with the speaker that according to the CBS poll, more voters (48 percent) say they think President Clinton, often accused of saying whatever voters want to hear, is saying what he believes in the budget debate than those (32 percent) who think Mr. Gingrich, the "true believer" of conservative dogma, is saying what he believes.
The disapproval of him as speaker has climbed 10 percent in about a month, the poll indicates, which is no surprise considering how he has alternated between playing bully boy and crybaby in that period.
Probably the most damaging factor was his public pout over the snub the president allegedly inflicted on him on Air Force One during the return of the official American party from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Mr. Gingrich acknowledged later that his complaint that the president didn't invite him to discuss the
budget crisis on the way home was "petty," but he complained about it anyway.
As a tactician, Mr. Gingrich did not prove himself to be the master politician he has set himself up to be, either. By permitting a cut in Medicare B premiums in the Republican emergency spending-limitation package that led to the partial government shutdown, he made it easy for Mr. Clinton to mobilize the nation's elderly against his party.
Revolution on hold
Mr. Gingrich, full of himself last January when he took over as speaker, dubbed himself a true "revolutionary" and informed the president and the Democrats that he was willing to "cooperate but not compromise" on the Contract with America. Most of its provisions, after moving quickly through the Republican-controlled House, have since languished.
While continuing to boast of the "mandate" for change delivered to him and the Republicans by their sweeping victory in the 1994 off-year elections, Gingrich & Co. began to suffer from the wide public perception -- encouraged, certainly, by Democrats -- that they were going too far too fast; slashing programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, to the severe detriment of the old, the young and the poor.
By this month, voters were saying in the CBS poll that they disapproved of the way the Republican-led Congress was doing its job by a whopping 68 percent to 10. Asked whom they trusted more with decisions on Medicare, 53 percent said President Clinton to 35 percent who said the Republicans in Congress.
A majority, 51 percent, blamed the congressional Republicans for the government shutdown, to only 28 percent who put the onus on Mr. Clinton, and they split 46-46 on whether they thought the Republicans in Congress were really trying to find a solution to "the budget standoff with President Clinton."
All this is a remarkable commentary on the one man who until recently at least had been widely seen as running Washington -- from Capitol Hill, not the White House. Small wonder that Speaker Gingrich "probably" won't run for president next year.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.