SUBDUED AND CHASTENED, yet enamored as always with ideas and ambition, Newt Gingrich has received the nod of House Republicans for a second term as speaker -- the first member of his party to have an opportunity to preside over a re-elected GOP majority in 68 years.
Two years ago, when the Republican House Conference rang to cries of "Newt, Newt, Newt," the congressman from Georgia was full of himself as he proclaimed the need for "large changes for this country to succeed and work in the 21st century." His rhetoric was downright presidential as he invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt in urging the American people "to renew American civilization." It was he, not President Clinton, who would set the national agenda.
Republican freshmen could barely restrain themselves then as Mr. Gingrich called for an FDR-style "Hundred Days" to enact a conservative "Contract with America" that would change the shape and thrust of government.
Actually, Mr. Gingrich achieved quite a bit, not least because a desire for renewed incumbency induced both the White House and Congress to seek accommodation in the run-up to this year's election. But as he conceded yesterday, he made "a few big errors" by trying to be both speaker of the House and chief advocate of the Republicans. Next year, he vowed, there would be an "implementation Congress" rather than a "confrontation Congress." The implication was that there would be no more government shutdowns of the kind that buried Mr. Gingrich's White House hopes in an avalanche of popular-opinion negatives.
Yet Mr. Gingrich could also take some credit for Mr. Clinton's election-year move from left to center. He said it created "common ground" for a balanced budget, smaller government and tax cuts. The speaker, for his part, picked up on Clinton themes by stressing children's needs, education, environment and health care (all approached incrementally).
In the past, Mr. Gingrich has been known to talk in mollifying ways only to fire away in the political trenches. But he indicated an awareness of public disfavor and no doubt knows that Republican legislative leadership has shifted into the smooth, disciplined hands of Senate majority leader Trent Lott. Gingrich redux, with a reduced majority, may have to settle for whatever modesty he can muster. "Frustration," he intoned, "is the price of freedom."
Pub Date: 11/21/96