WASHINGTON -- Even if Newt Gingrich manages to rise above the ethics controversy swirling around him and hold onto the House speaker's gavel, he will likely emerge as a damaged, vastly diminished leader, a far cry from the superheroic figure who seemed to hold the keys to American politics a mere two years ago.
Over the weekend, as the Georgia Republican admitted his guilt charges brought by a House ethics subcommittee, Republicans in the House rallied behind him on TV talk shows, dismissing his violations as "arcane" and pledging to re-elect him speaker when Congress convenes Jan. 7.
But that fate is far from signed and sealed. Political analysts agree that a 1997 model Speaker Gingrich -- and thus the Republican majority in the House -- would be far less powerful and effective than the 1995 version. And some Republican lawmakers are factoring the likelihood of a damaged Gingrich into their decision on whether to support his continuation as speaker.
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, says he, for one, is "far from a decision" about whether to back the speaker. "It's too early," he said yesterday. "I want to read everything put in front of me."
Ehrlich said Gingrich's admissions of guilt -- in making false statements to the ethics committee about whether he used tax-exempt enterprises for political purposes -- "ratchets up" what the Maryland congressman had previously seen as a political vendetta against the speaker.
He said the prospect of a weakened House speaker would not be the "determining factor" in whether he backs Gingrich's leadership but "may be relevant."
Given his admitted missteps, his low popularity and the Democrats' high-pitched campaign against him in the last election, Gingrich's stature -- and perhaps the loyalty of his troops -- had already been waning. He himself had acknowledged that this Congress, unlike the early days of the past one, would not be a one-man show.
But his current ethics problems have clearly accelerated his fall from power.
"Even if he survives, he'll be on life-support systems," says Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
Should he retain his speaker's post, Gingrich will likely assume a more conciliatory, low-key posture, with committee chairmen and other party leaders reasserting themselves and being showcased by the party, experts say.
Roger Davidson, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, predicts that Gingrich will be reduced to adopting the "ceremonial role of the speakership" as well as some noncontroversial issues -- a posture that is foreign to his nature and could thus be a struggle for him.
"I would think he would rather not be speaker than be a parliamentary lap dog," Baker said. "That's just not Gingrich."
His troubles are also likely to intensify another political reality resulting from the past election: the dominance of a more conservative Senate, which picked up several Republican seats, over the House as the center of legislative action, with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott replacing Gingrich as chief GOP power broker.
"Gingrich was going to take a back seat to Lott anyway," says Richard Semiatin, assistant professor of political science at American University. "Now, he's really going to take a back seat."
This focus on the Senate could be especially stark in regard to investigations that will review allegations against the White House and Democratic fund-raisers concerning campaign contributions from foreign sources. "The Senate will be carrying the water on this," Semiatin says. "The House is really constrained."
If House Republicans give Gingrich a pass on his ethics violations, Semiatin notes, they will be open to charges of hypocrisy if they go after President Clinton.
But Baker believes the Gingrich investigation -- and what is likely to be a pounding by Democrats -- will turn up the partisan heat and embolden Republicans.
He and others believe that many Democrats, led by Gingrich's chief antagonist, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior, are seeking retribution for the ousting of a Democratic House speaker, Jim Wright, in 1989, and will not let up.
The irony is that the effort to dethrone Wright was led by a brash and combative House member named Newt Gingrich.
"This is really a blood feud," Baker said. "When you combine the deposition of Jim Wright with the loss of the House by Democrats to a particularly outspoken, militant group of Republicans [in 1994)], you have the ingredients for this kind of showdown."
The ethics committee, while finding that Gingrich gave false information about the financing of a college course, drew no conclusion about whether he intentionally misled the panel or whether he violated tax laws.
House members, including Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, the Connecticut Republican who chairs the ethics committee, say they hope the panel will recommend disciplinary action for the speaker -- which could be anything from a slap on the wrist to expulsion -- before the House votes to elect a speaker on Jan. 7.
Gingrich is bargaining for a reprimand -- a lesser punishment that would allow him to keep his job -- rather than a censure, which would make him ineligible.
Some political analysts believe that Gingrich's colleagues will ultimately fall in line and back him -- if for no other reason than the lack of an appealing alternative. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, the next in line, is seen as more abrasive and confrontational than Gingrich.
"The question is whether they will be embarrassed later by having rallied around Gingrich," says Kevin Phillips, a Republican political analyst.
The ethics committee is still examining other complaints against Gingrich. And the Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether tax-deductible contributions to finance the college course Gingrich taught broke tax law.
Timing seems to be on Gingrich's side since the public will be consumed with holiday preparations in coming days.
Still, some believe Gingrich will ultimately fall, if not now then within the year.
"This kind of thing has proven fatal," Baker said. "There is always some cloud, always some taint. People who can rally can also desert in the same numbers."
Pub Date: 12/24/96