WHO IS THE most powerful liberal in American politics? He has prevented the Republican majority in Congress from addressing affirmative action and race-based quotas. He has forced congressional Republicans to shelve their drive to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. He has stood firm against tax cuts.
He is a confidant of Jesse Jackson's. He is a pal to Alec Baldwin. He is a cheerleader for bipartisan cooperation at any cost and a pious opponent of the unspeakable horrors of harsh partisan rhetoric.
He came to power amid triumphant cries of "Revolution!" Now his motto seems to be, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Newt Gingrich, a Rockefeller Republican in his youth, is backsliding across the political spectrum to his roots -- and perhaps beyond. What happened?
Coming out of 1996 with a public approval rating a few points shy of the Ebola virus, Newt Gingrich had become a clear liability to the Republican Party. The problem was not, and never has been, one of ethics. Nearly four score highly dubious ethics charges were thrown at Gingrich, and all but one dismissed. The media, of course, treated this like the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Still, a politically robust Gingrich could never have been so victimized. I never felt the ethics complaints against Gingrich amounted to much at all. I skipped the moralizing and hand-wringing over what to do about Newt -- an over-dramatic exercise a number of my colleagues played out for the press. I ultimately voted against the ethics committee report recommending a draconian $300,00 fine because I thought it unjust, but I do think he should be replaced as speaker because he is killing us. Gingrich's over-exposure in the media, his "I'm on a mission from God to save American culture" rhetoric, and his turning the government shutdown into a fit of personal pique over seating on Air Force One all worked together to make him the Man You Love to Hate in the professional-wrestling ring of American politics.
Now he is running hard toward the center. This sure to garner praise on the editorial pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsday. If he works hard at it, Newt will receive the ultimate backhanded compliment doled out to Republicans by editorial writers everywhere: "He's grown in office." Frank Rich might even salute Gingrich's newfound respect for NEA and its critical mission of funding transvestite performance audiences.
As road kill on the highway of American politics, Newt Gingrich cannot sell the Republican agenda. So, instead of replacing Newt, the Republican leadership has replaced the agenda. Gone is the Contract With America. In its place is an amorphous "agenda for a governing majority" -- 13 suggestions carefully crafted to upset no one and accomplish not much of anything.
As a consequence, congressional Republicans are adrift. We are in danger of losing our identity as a party. As Bob Dole put it recently, "Don't they know they won? Only I lost."
Pete King is a Republican congressman from Long Island, N.Y.. Reprinted with permission from the Weekly Standard.
Pub Date: 4/06/97