TOPICS > Politics

Gingrich Re-Election Analysis

January 7, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now some reaction to and analysis of the Gingrich re-election. It comes from Shields & Gigot and from our regional commentators, Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News, Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman, Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution. They are joined tonight by Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Paul Gigot, did the House do the right thing today by re-electing New Gingrich?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I think they did, and I think they also did the–paraphrase Vince Lombardi–the only thing that they could have done because if the Republicans had not elected Gingrich today, I think the alternative would have been chaos. It would have sent the Republicans spinning. They really had no alternative. And it would have shown that they could be intimidated and could be dictated to by the accusations of their opponents. This was not so much a vote for or against Newt Gingrich for a lot of Republicans. It was about power, and it was about their prerogatives after winning an election to be able to determine and–the leadership of the House–and organize the House. And that’s what it came down to for most Republicans today. I think it’s something they felt they had to do.

JIM LEHRER: Something they had to do, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Apparently so, Jim. I mean, this is the first Republican speaker re-elected to a second term in 68 years, the first speaker elected with a minority of the House in 75 years. What was stark today up on Capitol Hill was the difference from two years ago. Those of us who were there two years ago and saw a triumphant, ascendant, dominant Newt Gingrich, the architect and the engineer of the Republican takeover–today, we saw a man who was a mendicant, a supplicant, begging for votes, begging to hold on to his leadership. And it was a different mood, and it’s going to be a different Speakership.

JIM LEHRER: But what about Paul’s point that that’s really wasn’t what the issue was? The issue was power between Republicans and Democrats. And Republicans wanted to hold onto what they won in the election.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the issue was that there wasn’t anybody behind Newt Gingrich. It’s as simple as that. I mean, the easy vote would have been in many respects to get rid of Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich is the singularly most unpopular figure in the country by a margin of three to one in public opinion surveys done nationally over the last weekend. People think he ought to be gone as Speaker, get rid of him. By a two to one margin, they think Bill Clinton has higher ethical and moral standards than does Newt Gingrich. So the easy vote would have been–I mean, you have to admire the Republican sense of loyalty in keeping him, and I think Paul’s right. It was cast as a vote that the other side is trying to dictate who our person should be. There was no Tom Foley who was a reassuring, comfortable figure behind him to succeed him. Dick Armey and Tom Delay don’t command that kind of same feeling among Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I want to ask you, Paul. I understand why the vote–anybody would understand why the vote went that way today, but why did the Republicans allow it to get that way? Why did–was there never any effort that you’re aware of to go to Newt Gingrich and say, hey, wait a minute, don’t put us through this, step aside and let us go with somebody else?

PAUL GIGOT: No. I believe the strategy here was set when Newt Gingrich made his plea, in essence. I mean, he decided not to fight this. He decided to essentially agree to what the subcommittee of the Ethics Committee had decided. And at that point, based on the merits, they made a judgment, the Republicans made a judgment that it was survivable and was, in fact, the equivalent not of jaywalking but of the speeding ticket and that, therefore, Newt Gingrich could survive and was better than any of the other alternatives. And those other alternatives–I mean, if Newt Gingrich had gone down, who’s going to be the Speaker? I mean, is Dick Armey? No. He’s going to run–Tom Delay, the number three person, maybe the number four person, maybe the number five person. You could have had the House at wit’s end for months. The Democrats would have been elated. They would have been joyful. But now at least you have the discipline of an organized leadership that’s been there. And while Newt Gingrich is tarnished, you at least have some direction.

JIM LEHRER: Cynthia Tucker, how does this look to you from Atlanta?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: (Atlanta) It looks to me as if Newt Gingrich is in a lot more serious trouble than jaywalking or speeding tickets or parking tickets or the various other very minor offenses that many Republican partisans are attempting to compare this to. The Republicans made a decision, I think, that they didn’t have anybody immediately standing in the wings to replace Newt Gingrich and that also many still remember that Newt Gingrich is certainly the architect of the great Republican victory in 1994 that gave a Republican, Newt Gingrich, in fact, the Speakership for the first time in forty years. But I think this creates enormous problems, both for the party and for the country. They have a speaker who is damaged and is still being investigated. And the Internal Revenue Service could very well come back with a very damaging report, as could the Ethics Committee when we find out the full report that it will make.

JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, do you believe the Republicans had an alternative once the decision was made to go to this vote today?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I’m afraid I didn’t understand you, Jim. I will say–

JIM LEHRER: Once the Republicans made the decision to take this to a vote today, did they have any real alternative? Do you agree with Paul, they had really no alternative, they had to go with Gingrich?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: (Oklahoma City) I don’t really think they had an alternative. Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, from Oklahoma City, in fact, indicated as much, that this was really a choice about who gets to organize the House. That’s the choice right now. Tom Coburn, representative from the Eastern part of the state, pointed out that this wasn’t a choice between good and perfect. This was a choice between Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt. So I think Paul is basically right, Paul Gigot, in his assessment of the politics of it. I think that we’ll have to let the process play out a little further. I think it’s conceivable that the speaker might even gain some votes on the direct vote on the ethics question from people like Ralph Hall of Texas, who you might have noticed passed in the first round. We’ll just have to see how it plays off. I think the speaker’s in some danger but he’s taken the first step to retaining power.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, is this story important in Boston?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: (Boston) Actually, Jim, it’s not very important. I think most people around here regard the speaker and maybe even the Congress of the United States as irrelevant to their daily lives. It has–rightly or wrongly, I think they feel it has very little to do with how their kids are being educated in fifth grade, their job tenure, how that’s going to be two or three years, whether their health care is going to hold up, things like that. They worry about things like that, not about Newt Gingrich. I think they view him as sort of a high IQ comedian, someone who will adapt to any audience that he’s in front of. I mean, Mark mentioned that he was a mendicant today. But he’s just as likely to be arrogant and a loud mouth tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: And thus no different than all others in politics, is that what you’re saying?

MIKE BARNICLE: Well, I think unfortunately for us and for the country the level of expectation at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue has been so lowered in terms of ethical standards that there are no more surprises out here in the country. People are not surprised by what happens in Washington, D.C., and Mr. Gingrich this week and for the past few weeks has done something that many people can relate to in ordinary cities leading ordinary lives. He did the same thing that happens every day in courtrooms and in jailhouses all across this country. He basically said, yeah, I’m guilty but my lawyer did a lousy job. And, you know, people understand that, but it doesn’t have much to do with the daily process of life, what happened today in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: How would you read it from Dallas, Lee?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: (Dallas) Well, Jim, of course, here in Texas we can’t forget what Newt Gingrich did to Jim Wright in 1989. He was playing jugular politics. He was playing terminator politics. And now it got turned against him. So I guess he could see how it feels. I feel that Paul is right, that the Republicans did what they had to do. And I’m glad to see them take a stand against jugular politics. I think it’s very destructive, and I hope the speaker gains some humility from this experience and a little contrition, not just contrition for what he did to himself but what he did to Jim Wright eight years ago.

JIM LEHRER: In other words when you say they could have taken the easy way out, as Mark said, and they chose not to, and you think that’s a good thing in and of itself, is that right, Lee?

LEE CULLUM: Yeah, I do, because I think we need an end to terminator politics. It’s–well, it began with John Tower. You remember that. And then we had Jim Wright, a Texan for a Texan. Now we’re going to have a Georgian for a Texan. It’s got to end somewhere. I’m not sorry it ended today.

JIM LEHRER: Clarence, how do you read this?

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Well, I think the Republicans got a break on Capitol Hill actually in that most of the public didn’t really get a chance to focus on what Newt Gingrich has been charged with by the subcommittee of the Ethics Committee. The actual charge, you know, of using tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes is a very serious charge. Newt Gingrich’s organization, he started several, one in particular, The Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, ostensibly designed to help inner-city youth, was used to put Newt Gingrich’s TV program on the air. Most people would say that’s not the kind of purpose that that sort of organization should be used for. This is not the first tax-exempt group to engage in an activity that may be interpreted as somewhat partisan; however, isn’t the kind of thing the Speaker of the House ought to be engaged in. That’s why my newspaper, among many across this country, after hemming and hawing, finally decided it would be best for Newt, the party, and Congress, if he would step aside at least for a while till all this is cleared up. Yeah. The Republicans on Capitol Hill did what they had to do politically, but they didn’t really want to do it. I think they would have loved to have been able to have delayed this vote. They couldn’t even do that for a number of political reasons, as Paul was saying. It would be chaotic to make that kind of move. Around Chicago, a lot of people were pulling for Henry Hyde to be put up.

JIM LEHRER: He’s the congressman–

CLARENCE PAGE: Congressman from suburban Ohio–suburban Chicago, excuse me–a man of–maybe the best debater in the House–and a man of high repute and respect. Comparing him to Newt Gingrich, he’s a lot more popular and thus, you had a lot of different feelings going around in the Midwest politically on the one hand and ethically on the other hand. But I think on the whole the Republicans got a break in that people didn’t really focus on the most scandalous aspect of what Newt is charged with.

JIM LEHRER: Did people focus on this story at all in San Diego, Bob Kittle?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: (San Diego) Well, I think they are focusing on it to some extent in San Diego. And I actually agree with the idea that today’s vote may encourage a bit more civility in the political process because, frankly, to the extent people have focused on this it has been to kind of join in this Roman holiday kind of spectacle where the allegations day after day, a drumbeat of criticism, and people don’t have a really clear idea of what the charges really are, but they’re kind of lusting for blood. I think that was part of this whole problem. There was a momentum here that somebody had to be sacrificed because of all of the continual spectacle here, as I say, like a Roman holiday. And the decision by the House Republicans to go ahead and elect Gingrich I think might help people focus a little bit more on the facts. And contrary to Clarence Page’s view, I think the facts show that the infractions here, the mistakes that Newt Gingrich made, were really rather at a low level. That is, they certainly didn’t rise to the level that would warrant removing him as speaker. I mean, after all, the House subcommittee, ethics subcommittee, did not accuse the speaker of violating the tax laws. It merely concluded that he should have sought expert advice and followed it. And on the question of whether he misled the committee, he acknowledged in his initial correspondence with the subcommittee that, in fact, GOPAC, the Political Action Committee, was involved in the college course. In two later letters to the subcommittee he said GOPAC was not involved. I think it’s pretty plausible that that was an unintentional providing of misinformation to the committee, the subcommittee, and that’s what the subcommittee in its summary, at least, concluded. So if nothing more comes out of this–and as far as we know now there’s nothing to suggest that there will be other serious allegations–I think it would have been rather foolish to sweep aside Newt Gingrich because he’s unpopular. And granted, he is unpopular. The latest Gallup poll shows that his approval rating is down to 27 percent. But do we sweep politicians out of office because they’re unpopular, or do we pause long enough to look at the facts and examine the allegations and make a determination on the merits of the case? That’s the direction I think the House is going now. And I think a reprimand may, indeed, come out of all of this, and that may, indeed, be warranted based on the facts. But now that the emotional issue of whether you want to keep Newt Gingrich for political reasons and a lot of other reasons has been settled and Gingrich is there, maybe the House can move on, the Democrats and the Republicans, to a dispassionate examination of the facts, a determination of the proper disciplinary action, and then put the case behind us.

JIM LEHRER: What about that point, Cynthia?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Oh, I think these are very serious charges. The very idea that all Newt is guilty of is not knowing exactly what things his–his lawyer was saying to the committee is preposterous. Newt Gingrich said in what might be thought of as an apology when he agreed that, in fact, he had committed some ethics violations that he might have been overconfident and naive. He was certainly overconfident, arrogant, brash, hypocritical, and manipulative, but anybody who believes Newt Gingrich is naive is awfully naive, themselves. What is going on here is very, very simple. Newt Gingrich intentionally deceived people about what he was doing. The very same statements that his lawyer submitted to the Ethics Committee, Newt Gingrich, himself, has been making over the past two years about this college course. He has said many times in public appearances and in television appearances that GOPAC had nothing to do with his college course. That’s the same information he gave to the Ethics Committee, and that now turns out to be patently false. I think we also ought to stop talking about the Speakership as if it belongs to the party in power, the Republicans or the Democrats. This is not merely a party leader. The Speaker of the House is a constitutional office third in line for the presidency, and I think as Newt Gingrich once said about Jim Wright that office ought to be held to the very highest ethical standards.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, how do you respond to that?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I mean, just on the facts the Ethics Committee never used the word “intentional,” and it never used the word “line.” Those are her judgments. This is what’s going to be–the severity of this is going to be debated now in the penalty phase by the Ethics Committee, the full committee. And we’ll get an airing of this on either side, and we’ll have a debate about it. And it’s going to be a brutal couple of weeks, quite frankly. But that’s what the Ethics Committee is for. And that’s what they do on the House of Representatives. And if we’re going to have a fight about that, so be it.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Mark, you agree that we’re in for a brutal two weeks at least?

MARK SHIELDS: More than brutal, Jim. I mean, I–

JIM LEHRER: Could things be more–

MARK SHIELDS: Lee Cullum was–Lee Cullum I think was–expressed the hopes of many, but it’s not a realistic expectation. Today was stage one. That’s all staged today, it was the vote on speaker. Stage two is when the committee council makes the representation–the indictment against the speaker on television. And that will include the fact that very wealthy contributors wrote off their contributions, as though they were given to the Little Sisters of the Poor, or to the Salvation Army, and made a political contribution out of it. And there will be sums of money involved and all the rest of it. And it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be bitter. Then the third stage comes when the vote on the House floor comes, and Lee is absolutely right, as is Cynthia. A lot of it’s going to be thrown back at Newt, what he said. He said that Tip O’Neill was a thug, that the Democratic leadership of the House under Tip O’Neill was full of thugs, that Jim Wright was the most corrupt figure in the history, the Democrats were the most corrupt party in this century, I mean, just constant, constant, relentless diatribe. I mean, that is going to be used against him, there’s no question about it. The attitude on Capitol Hill right now, and I think Paul would agree, having been in the House chamber today, is like Bosnia and Belfast.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: It is not comedy.

JIM LEHRER: Wow. Do you agree with that?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, thankfully, we don’t shoot at each other yet, although we use ethics laws in their place. And that’s what–that’s what ethics laws in this political city have become is the weapons of choice.

JIM LEHRER: And Mike Barnicle back to you. An ethics fight like this, you see intensity of this, and you heard what these two guys just said, what it was like on the floor of the House, but it’s not–people don’t see it that way out in the country.

MIKE BARNICLE: Well, I don’t think people see it as Bosnia and Serbia, so much as they see it as the World Wrestling Federation. You know, you get–I mean, the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House sat together in an idyllic setting up in New Hampshire I think about 18 months ago. They were very friendly, very congenial, they’re going to resolve all sorts of problems involving campaign financing. Nothing ever happened. They got off their stools, and they began stabbing each other to death. And this thing happened over and over and over again. And what happened today in Washington I think people look at it, and they don’t view it as being anything about the Congress, or anything about the Speakership so much as they view it being about one man’s ego and one man’s job, Gingrich.

JIM LEHRER: And not a serious matter, Mike?

MIKE BARNICLE: Oh, I think a very serious matter, but I think it becomes a serious matter once you get to the impeachment stage, as Mark pointed out. But I think right now people I think view politics unfortunately in such negative terms that they don’t think that these things have great impact on their lives, on their everyday lives. They just don’t, Jim. I mean, it might, you know. I’m probably wrong in saying this, but I just think the average person views what happened today in Washington as having zero impact on what’s going to happen to them tomorrow at 8 o’clock when they’re riding the subway to work, zero.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all very much.