Strange Bedfellow

Newt Descending

He’s down but not out.

He was persecuted, tormented, and crucified. But at Easter, he rose. That, at least, is what Newt Gingrich’s apostles are saying about him, pointing to their man’s successful trip to the Far East and his return to public visibility following the congressional spring recess.

Newt is sounding like his old self again. Wednesday he called for abolition of both the capital-gains tax and the estate tax. (For more on the capital-gains debate, see this “Dialogue” between Michael Kinsley and John C. Goodman.) In an hour-long speech to GOPAC Monday night, he boasted about the Contract With America’s influence in Mongolia. Once again the historical pedant, he explained why the Clinton campaign-finance scandal–which he previously called merely “worse than Watergate”–is actually tantamount to the fall of Rome. In ancient times, “sending lobbyists and offering bribes to Rome became the easiest and most profitable route to wealth and power for many local leaders,” Gingrich said. “If it is proven that the Chinese Communists were trying to funnel money into a presidential defense fund, then the Roman model of foreign corruption will indeed be raising its head within the American system.”

Contrary to the media hype and rumors floating around Washington, Gingrich will probably not be deposed before the next election. To get rid of him would require not just a few dozen defections, but a majority vote of the House Republican caucus. There is still no fully plausible successor, and sacking Gingrich would mean Republicans running in 1998 on a record of catastrophe rather than mere inaction. At the same time, the precariousness of Newt’s position is making him and other Republican leaders act in weird, unpredictable ways. The speaker’s shakiness has turned the House into a strange and somewhat silly place.

The most obvious effect of Gingrich’s insecurity is on his own behavior, which has consisted lately of dramatic lurches, first to the left, then to the right. Before his China trip, Gingrich’s comeback strategy was to show that he was not the radical-right ogre of Mother Jones direct mail. He made nice with Jesse Jackson and announced that he was dropping affirmative action as an issue. He warmly received Alec Baldwin and other liberal actors, who came to lobby on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts. Though Baldwin had been quoted calling him “evil,” Gingrich invited him and the other thespians back for dinner, and declared that the NEA might not be such a bad thing after all. Conservatives who were annoyed by Newt’s nice-guy act were truly outraged when he suggested that one way to get a balanced-budget agreement might be to put off tax cuts.

This gambit was based on what was at least a plausible political calculation. If Republicans could separate their tax cuts in the public mind from the domestic budget cuts necessary to balance the budget, Democrats could no longer accuse them of throwing old people into the snow in order to save money for Steve Forbes. The idea was also to do with taxes what House Republicans had shrewdly done with welfare reform in 1996, holding the president’s feet to the fire by sending him a politically popular stand-alone bill. But the result of Gingrich’s suggestion was blind fury on the right. Eleven of the freshman hotheads elected in 1994 openly challenged the speaker’s leadership. In a short, shocking article in the Weekly Standard, Rep. Peter King of New York called Gingrich “political road kill.” In the last Congress, Gingrich didn’t have to stand for this kind of insubordination. Faced with an episode of dissent back then, he stripped one nonconformist freshman of a choice committee assignment.

Now, however, Gingrich lacks the power to punish, and can do little more than suck up to his conservative critics. He apologized profusely for the “misunderstanding” about his comments on tax cuts. His GOPAC speech was filled with right-wing red meat, such as a proposed crackdown on the political influence of unions and a demand that the Internal Revenue Service be brought to heel. On April 9, he surprised everyone by proposing a more aggressive tax cut than any of his more conservative GOP colleagues, calling for an end to all taxes on both capital gains and estates, changes that would cost the Treasury some $300 billion over five years. In keeping with conservative newspeak, Gingrich referred to these as the taxes on “savings and job creation” and the tax on “death benefits.”

Gingrich is not the only one behaving erratically. As he moves to shore up his right-wing credentials, his more authentically conservative rivals are trying to establish their own credibility in the eyes of moderate Republicans. The first to suggest that going after the NEA again might not be such a hot idea was not Gingrich, but the libertarian Majority Leader Dick Armey. When he came out with his put-off-the-tax-cuts suggestion, Gingrich was actually endorsing a proposal by ultracon Republican Whip Tom DeLay. DeLay has been taking sudden umbrage at accusations that he is a tool of corporate lobbyists. Armey has been losing weight and restraining his proclivity toward quasioffensive humor. (At one press conference earlier this year, he joked, “I’m happy to be black–I mean back,” and chided journalists about their preference for the Old Testament.) Gossip swirls about the four-way rivalry among the top Republicans who rank just below Gingrich: Armey, DeLay, John Boehner, and Bill Paxon. The latest rumor has Armey and Paxon teaming up as speaker and majority leader.

All this jockeying has forestalled any real Republican agenda. Compared with the hyperactive 104th Congress, the 105th has been a joke. What little time it has actually been in session it has spent on issues like a resolution supporting the Georgia judge who posted the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, and a congressional gold medal for Frank Sinatra. Last week, the House passed a resolution banning the use of federal funds for assisted suicide. Of course, no federal funds go to assisted suicide. In a caucus meeting last week, Gingrich reportedly said that Republican critics who complained he had no agenda “weren’t smart enough to understand it.”

The most damaging consequence of Gingrich’s weakness is the difficulty of negotiating what might be the GOP’s proudest achievement–an agreement to balance the budget. The paradox is that while a deal would shore up Newt’s position, he hasn’t got enough power to negotiate one. Though the GOP and the administration are quite close on the numbers, those on Newt’s right flank are likely to portray any agreement with the president as a capitulation born of weakness. In 1995, Gingrich had the clout to make a centrist budget compromise stick. Now such an agreement would probably provoke open rebellion, divide the House, and deprive the speaker of a working majority.

The result is a complex stalemate. Republicans face the prospect of running in 1998 with a discredited, unpopular speaker who is nonetheless impossible to dethrone, and with no record of accomplishment. As the Democratic National Committee sinks deeper into scandal-related debt, the Democrats can look forward to running without a functional party organization to support them. The lame vs. the destitute–it could be a great race.