WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich hailed the Republicans' success yesterday in retaining control of the House as "a truly historic moment." With some of his signature bluster, he said history would remember him as having presided over "the first time in 68 years that the Republicans kept control of Congress."
But his road to victory was strewn with at least 13 Republican freshmen ejected from their seats and a trounced Republican presidential nominee, leaving the House speaker himself stopped for the moment at a yellow light -- a warning from the voters to proceed with caution.
The once larger-than-life Gingrich may have eked out a victory for his party in Congress, though by a slimmer margin than in 1992. And he almost certainly will retain the speakership.
But, vilified by opponents as a zealous budget-cutter out to gut Medicare and blamed by some for President Clinton's remarkable rebound in the polls, Gingrich emerges from this election a far cry from the powerhouse he was two years ago.
"He's on a life-support system," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "Clearly, [the election] wasn't a ringing endorsement, but neither was it a complete repudiation. He understands he does not have license to go after the president with hammer and tong. It's more a license to grope."
Already yesterday, Gingrich seemed to be talking a new language, speaking of cooperation and "common ground" with the Democratic administration in a dramatic departure from his heated 1994 post-election talk of "revolution" and "McGoverniks" inhabiting the White House.
"I think you'll see us try to reach out and find a common ground with President Clinton," Gingrich said in an interview on CBS-TV. "We don't have to live in a world of confrontation. I think we can find common ground to work on things."
In a telephone call with President Clinton yesterday, Gingrich said, "We both agreed that under our system we are now going to work together."
Mindful of what seemed to be the electorate's discomfort with radical change and partisan strife, Gingrich and other Republican leaders said yesterday that they would lie back for a while and allow Clinton to offer an agenda.
"I think we'll see the Newt Gingrich of 1996 rather than the Newt Gingrich of 1995," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who has written about House Republicans. "We'll see him working with the White House on incremental reform and keeping a much lower profile."
Indeed, Gingrich retreated from the spotlight and reinvented himself somewhat after the 1995 budget clash with Clinton that resulted in the shutdown of the government and a dark cloud over the Republican-led Congress.
In the past year, he has been far more willing to compromise with the White House in the interest of getting bills passed.
But some think this tone of conciliation may be hard for Gingrich to sustain.
"He's got to be all the things that he's not," said Kevin Phillips, a GOP analyst. "In 1997, he's got to do what he didn't do in '95 -- and that's understand that he didn't receive a mandate [in the 1994 election]; it was more a negative reaction to the Ozark Casanova. That's hard for him to understand."
Gingrich's penchant for cooperation in the coming years will also be tested from within the party as he forges a working relationship with Trent Lott, majority leader of the Senate, which picked up two more Republican seats this week. The Mississippi senator, a smoother, less combative figure than Gingrich, could threaten to supplant the speaker as the leading Republican voice on Capitol Hill.
"There will be competition," Pitney said. "Lott now has a strengthened hand, and he doesn't carry the baggage of unpopularity Gingrich has to bear."
Michael J. Malbin, director of legislative studies at the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York at Albany, believes Gingrich is in a stronger position than he was months ago because of the public's "confirmation" of the general policy direction of the Republican Congress.
Impressed that not more of the 71 Republican freshmen who sought re-election lost their jobs this week, he notes: "That's an 80 to 85 percent return rate for a class that did not trim its sails very much."
But even as Gingrich tries to trim his own sails, he remains one of the most polarizing figures in American politics.
In exit polls taken Tuesday, three of five voters said they had an unfavorable view of Gingrich. Yet more than half said they approved of the job the Republican-controlled Congress did in the past two years.
"Gingrich remains only slightly more popular than the Unabomber," said Pitney, "but people did not base their vote in the House of Representatives on Newt Gingrich."
Still, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, chairman of the committee investigating ethics charges against the speaker, won by only a razor-thin margin after a campaign in which her Democratic challenger accused her of going easy on Gingrich.
With as many negatives as he has -- including the ethics probe of possible tax violations involving a Gingrich-related foundation and college course -- some have been surprised that no one has emerged within the party to challenge the Georgian for his speaker's post.
But many Republicans still place the credit for their 1994 victory squarely at Gingrich's feet.
And since the party out of power in the White House generally makes gains in mid-term elections -- especially in the second term of an administration -- the House Republicans will probably expand in 1998, with Gingrich still likely to be the odds-on favorite for the top seat.
Pub Date: 11/07/96