MARGARET WARNER: We get varying assessments of Newt Gingrich's leadership from five Republican activists: Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a long-time Gingrich associate; Ann Stone is chairman of the Republicans for Choice; Terry Jeffrey is editor of Human Events, a national conservative weekly, he served as campaign manager for Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential bid; Ralph Reed is executive director of the Christian Coalition; and Vin Weber is a former six-term Republican congressman from Minnesota; he's now a lobbyist and co-director of Empower America, a Republican think tank. Welcome all of you. Terry Jeffrey, how do you see it? Do you think Newt Gingrich is functioning as an effective leader this time around?
TERRY JEFFREY, Human Events: No. Absolutely not. I think that he has not been aggressive ever since he had his problems with the Ethics Committee. I think he's gone into a defensive posture. I think, in fact, the whole Republican leadership has adopted a strategy that if they're going to go into the trenches for two years, they hope that scandal is going to overtake the Clinton administration, they're going to hope that history in its natural curve is going to give them an increased majority in 1998, without them having done anything substantive in the Congress and that hope to take the White House back on the heels of this scandal in 2000.
MARGARET WARNER: Grover Norquist, a defensive strategy, do you see it that way?
GROVER NORQUIST, Americans for Tax Reform: No, that's silly, and it's not what's happening. What is happening is you have the Speaker taking an aggressive role in China. I think he really looked good compared to Gore. He was very strong on all the conservative questions of human rights in China, on the situation with Taiwan. On April 15th, the Speaker is leading the fight, and all the Republicans will vote for a constitutional amendment to require a 2/3 vote to raise taxes, central to the conservative agenda. The partial birth abortion ban got 2/3, got a lot of Democrats and virtually all the Republicans, all this under the Republican leadership. It's not the 100 days, but you don't do the 100 days every Congress. This is a new governing majority.
MARGARET WARNER: Ralph Reed, would you weigh in on this point, and explain maybe what you meant--you gave a speech a month ago in which you talked about the congressional leadership being marked by, I think, you said, retreat, timidity, and muddle-headed moderation.
RALPH REED, Christian Coalition: Right. What I was talking about there was the fact that after the 1996 elections, where we had this very unique situation where for the first time since the 1940's, first time in two generations, we're facing a guarantee of four years of divided government, a conservative Republican Congress that went into Pennsylvania Avenue, and a liberal Democratic President at the other. And there were some people who after that election said well, let's let the President leave; let's let the President get into trouble; let's let him present his budget; and let's let us react to it, rather than doing what we did in 1995 and '96 when we presented our own agenda and allowed the labor unions and the Democratic National Committee and others attack us with negative ads. I think that that is a recipe not only for ideological suicide, but I think it's a recipe for defeat in 1998, and--
MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. Do you fault--do you think that was Newt Gingrich's strategy?
RALPH REED: Well, I think that Newt had a difficult time coming out of the 1996 elections because of course he was the main target of the abuse. The labor unions spent about $100 million driving his negatives up and his favorable ratings down. And so I think it took him a while to get his sea legs. I do agree with Grover that I think since he's gotten back from China I see a new and different Newt. He's now said that we are going to cut taxes; we're going to do it this year. He's indicated that we're going to have a vote on a religious freedom amendment that allows for voluntary school prayer. He's said that we're going to ensure that we vote on some of the community renewal agenda, that is to say job creation and strengthening the family in the inner cities. I think if you saw Newt Gingrich's speech last night to GOPAC, I think there have been some problems of timidity and retreat. I think they're largely behind us, or at least I hope so.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's go back to you, Terry Jeffrey. Respond to that.
TERRY JEFFREY: Let me give you a concrete example of Newt's lack of leadership I think Ralph would appreciate. Last year in October when they were all rushing to try and get home for re-election Newt cut a deal with Leon Panetta and the Clinton White House that said they'd bring up a vote early in this Congress to allow expedited funding and international Planned Parenthood and Chinese Course of Abortion, the United Nations Family Planning Agency. The pro-lifers were adamantly opposed to that, but they brought the vote up on February 13th. I'm told by pro-lifers in the House that Newt Gingrich did not lift a finger to help them; that there was no leadership help at all. The vote went through, so we have the second Republican majority Congress in a row that is funded with tax dollars coercing abortion in China. You'd think that fiscal conservatives and social conservatives would be opposed to that, yet, Newt Gingrich did not lead us in fighting that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ann Stone, you are of course a moderate, especially on social issues. Do you see less of a conservative drive in Newt Gingrich this time around?
ANN STONE, Republicans for Choice: I'd say that this segment in Newt's life should be entitled "Newt Grows Up," because I think what we've seen is a growing up of Newt Gingrich and a growing into the position of governance. I think he's gotten over his bomb thrower stage. He understands that the way to get things done in Washington is really to approach it as more of a team framework. And he's also just following the advice that the Heritage Foundation has given him. And that is Heritage tells him, you know, he can't exclude the President from the process; they can't continue to try to have showdowns and shutdowns; that this doesn't work; that they do have to approach this in a little bit more grownup way.
MARGARET WARNER: Vin Weber, you've known Newt Gingrich for a very long time. How do you see this? Do you see him as having pulled back from his conservative principles, or is he growing up, as Ann Stone says?
VIN WEBER, Empower America: Well, I have a little different take on that. I understand what Ann's saying. I think the question is a little bit, is the conservative movement going to grow up right now. We have a difficult and unpleasant reality which we face right now, which is that even though we have the Congress for the first time back to back victories in 68 years, as we have already pointed out, but we have a razor thin majority really in the House of Representatives, and we have a Democratic President. The practical implications of that are that some of the things that we all want to accomplish for the country simply can't be accomplished right now, and the question is: Can we devise a strategy that makes the maximum amount of progress possible in a short period of time against those odds. Now, Newt came to the speakership really as a revolutionary leader of a minority of some 40 years that had been waiting to get into power. And all of those of us that were sort of his revolutionary followers expected miracles overnight, didn't work out, and now Newt, who in my judgment remains the greatest visionary strategist in the Republican Party, is trying to figure out how do we accomplish the most that we can, given that unfortunately we face four more years of Clinton in the White House?
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, you're saying that you don't think that he's lost his nerve or that personal situation such as these ethics problems have caused him to pull back, but he's adjusting to a new political reality?
VIN WEBER: Well, certainly the ethics assaults of the Democrats has taken its toll on him. You'd be ridiculous to deny that. And I think that's a problem that he's got to deal with and hopefully get out of. But I think the larger strategic reality for Republicans and conservatives is how do you accomplish the maximum amount that you can in this environment in which you don't have a big majority in the House and the Democrats control the White House?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. You've been trying to get back in.
TERRY JEFFREY: Margaret, here's a litmus test for Newt Gingrich. And Grover says that Newt went over to China, he did a great job standing up for conservative values and U.S. national interests. I concede that. Right now there's a coalition in the conservative movement from Ralph Nader to Pat Buchanan to Gerry Solomon to Bill Kristol, all united in the proposition that it's time to end most favored nation trade status for China, and stop what we believe is a policy of appeasement of Red China by Bill Clinton. The question this spring is going to be real. Is Newt going to side with President Clinton for the policy of appeasement? Is he going to side with the conservative coalition in changing that policy and ending MFN? He can't have it both ways on that one.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But let me--Ralph Reed, weigh in, would you briefly, on Vin Weber's point that Newt Gingrich has to adjust, whatever the issue is, from China to anything else, to this razor thin majority which if he loses 10 votes and go to the other side, he loses the vote?
RALPH REED: Well, I think, you know, Vin's point is, is very well taken. I mean, Newt Gingrich is dealing with the smallest majority for either party in the House of Representatives since 1954. He cannot afford to lose more than about six or eight votes, or he can't pass anything. He can't pass a budget. He can't pass term limits. He can't pass welfare reform, and the margin is much thinner, and the momentum is not what it was following the '94 election.
Having said that, you know, Ronald Reagan said after the Republicans lost the presidential election in 1976 and many people were counseling retreat, accommodation, compromise, timidity, some were even suggesting the Republican Party change its name. He said the time has come for conservatives and Republicans to lift the banner not of pale pastel but of bold colors. And I--my advice to Newt and to any Republican or conservative leader is don't be afraid to be bold; don't be afraid to go on offense. Even if you lose, you mobilize your troops as we head towards what will clearly be one of the most consequential off-year elections in many years to come.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Grover Norquist, address that point. Do you--what's your advice to Newt Gingrich?
GROVER NORQUIST: Very similar to Ralph Reed's. We're having the vote on April 15th on a super majority to raise taxes. Very important vote. The Speaker has made it clear that he wants to see a vote on a significant tax cut this year and get it through. I mean, the Speaker's agenda and the conservative agenda is there. What conservative activists and back-benchers in the House have to do is go to work. Don't whine that Speaker Gingrich didn't do your job for you. If you want to win a vote, the vote on April 15th, go out and get the votes, go out and lobby Democrats and Republicans to get it, and the world's divided into two people; those who work to accomplish conservative goals, and those who whine that Speaker Gingrich should do their work for them. And the whiners are going to be left behind. More and more people are going to become activists.
MARGARET WARNER: Ann Stone, based on your conversations with people on the Hill who ultimately of course decide his fate, do you think there is--do you think his position is secure? I mean, is it just a lot of whiners, or do you think his leadership role is in jeopardy?
ANN STONE: I think his position is secure, and it is a lot of whiners, although I have to say it is extremely strange when you have people like Chris Shays and Sherry Bollard standing up stronger for Newt Gingrich than--
MARGARET WARNER: Two members of the House.
ANN STONE: Two moderate members of the House, standing up before some of the conservative stalwarts. But I have to say, you know, let's look at tax cuts as an example of where this whining is ridiculous. Newt Gingrich learned a very, very smart lesson, and that is you don't bring up tax cuts at the same time you're bringing up budget cuts, or the Democrats are going to nail you saying that you're using one to pay for the other, which wasn't true, but it was the timing. He got that lesson, so, instead, he said, let's not talk about tax cuts right now; let's talk about budget cuts first, never saying he was abandoning tax cuts, but, meanwhile, these guys just go off the edge of the Earth, oh, he's abandoning tax cuts. I don't think anybody really believed Newt Gingrich was abandoning tax cuts. It was a matter of timing. It is a matter of style, not substance. It is part of what Vin was saying earlier, where conservatives have got to learn how to govern and not just learn to be the bomb throwers. They're very good at that, but they haven't been very good at governing.
TERRY JEFFREY: They're going to make a deal with Clinton first, and then they're going to come back and get us tax cuts. Where is the leverage for that going to come?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask--
ANN STONE: But they have the majority. That's where it's going to come from.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you. Your magazine, Terry Jeffrey, wrote an article last week, saying there were 40 or more House members, Republicans who were looking into how to mount a coup against Newt Gingrich. Now they're back. Is that going to happen?
TERRY JEFFREY: Well, what we reported is that our sources told us at least 30 to 40 would consider invoking Rule 7, which would enforce a petition with 50 Senators in the House Republican Conference, and that we had talked to at least 10 congressional offices where they confirmed that they were discussing this rule. In fact, there was a meeting where a significant number of conservatives talked about a petition to have a vote on the leadership of the Republican Conference as a way of forcing them to consider conservative ideas. I think that there's no doubt that people do not see an obvious replacement for Newt Gingrich. And they're not pleased with the way Newt's conducting the policy of the Republican Congress. I think if you listen to everybody here, they agree that Newt and the Republicans have taken a passive strategy. Some people say this is the road to governing. Others, I agree with Ralph, say, be like Reagan. No pale pastels. Fight for your principles. People will rally behind you. That is a winning strategy.
ANN STONE: You can have bold ideas, but it doesn't mean you have to be obnoxious about it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Vin Weber back in this. Vin, what do you think are Newt Gingrich's prospects in the next couple of months, and just how do you assess his situation among your former colleagues on the Hill?
VIN WEBER: Well, I think he's going to do pretty well the next couple of months, we've all said. He did very well in China. I've listened to some of his speeches since he came back, and I've talked to him, and I think he has a very clear idea in his own mind about how to articulate the greatest agenda the conservatives can hope to accomplish. I mean, he's got this difficult task of articulating a vision and also talking about strategically how we can accomplish that in this difficult environment, but I think he's going do to that, and I think people are going to rally around it. Of course, the Republicans in the House and the Republicans in the Senate and Republicans across the country are all still grumbling because we lost the last election at the presidential level. That's no great big surprise. But they're not grumbling a lot less about Senator Lott or Jim Nicholson, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee. That's sort of the natural season of events for a party that lost a presidential election that they didn't want to lose. I think that's going to change, and I think that--that the days ahead are going to be better for Republicans in the last couple of months.
MARGARET WARNER: And Grover Norquist, how do you think, briefly, how do you think Newt Gingrich sees this? Have you talked to him recently? Do you know how he feels?
GROVER NORQUIST: Yes. Spoke to him just last night before and after he spoke at GOPAC. He's energized. He was very happy with the China trip. He's been getting very positive feedback from the Republicans in the House and the Senate. And he's looking forward to making significant changes, reducing the budget, getting the tax cuts through, moving through all the parts of the conservative agenda, and what's particularly helpful is people who have been complaining in the past are now coming forward and saying we want to lead on this issue or that issue, and they're going to be taking the lead in getting conservative ideas passed.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all five very much.