SO NEWT GINGRICH is not going to run for president. After drawing the highest negatives any national leader has amassed in recent memory, the speaker of the House had mused weeks before he made it official yesterday that he did not consider himself a viable candidate -- if he ever did. This does not mean, however, that he will settle for anything less than being the key issue in the 1996 campaign. The nominees may be Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but if Mr. Gingrich has his way they will be debating a national agenda that is largely of his making.
It suited the Georgia Republican just fine to keep his name in the presidential sweepstakes as long as it helped drive his "Contract with America" through the House of Representatives. That milestone has now been passed. The speaker's current task is to negotiate in earnest not only with the Clinton White House but the Dole Senate. And what was once a political asset -- a putative bid for the presidency -- has become a political liability, a distraction from his determination to force the most dramatic turnabout in government policy and structure since the Roosevelt New Deal. Hence, his exit.
After riding high through last winter and spring, Mr. Gingrich has recently made himself a laughingstock with one verbal gaffe after another. The latest Gallup Poll puts his approval rating at a dismal 19 percent, compared to Mr. Clinton's 53 percent. The speaker needs to stop speaking so much. He needs to shut up if he wants to preserve his considerable successes and maintain his considerable clout.
As a man of 52, he can bide his time. If President Clinton wins re-election, Mr. Gingrich is likely to remain the most powerful Republican in the nation. If Senator Dole or one of the other GOP hopefuls should win the Oval Office, the speaker's role will be diminished but only in degree. He is the party's reigning ideologue, the idol of House GOP zealots who are willing to take big risks to attain their policy goals.
Senator Dole does not like big risks. If he gets his party's nomination, he predictably will move to the center where he can be expected to smooth off some of the rough edges of the Gingrich revolution. Presumably the speaker will be guardedly loyalist until election day. But once that is over, barring a disaster returning Democrats to congressional control, Mr. Gingrich can be expected to position himself for a presidential bid in the year 2000 elections. A tough alley fighter, Newt Gingrich plans to be around. He cannot be dismissed easily.