Amnesia is the occupational disorder of the news media. Just two months ago, mainstream pundits and analysts looked forward, with varying degrees of delight, to this week's midterm congressional election as a debacle for the Democrats. Republican leaders and conservative columnists anticipated the same event with undisguised glee, warning that November's bell would toll not only for the president's party but for Bill Clinton himself.
In the uproar that followed Bill Clinton's Aug. 17 speech about the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Democrats were widely advised to demand his resignation as the only way to avert total disaster. By his reckless behavior, the president supposedly had misled his party into permanent minority status.
The Democrats have surely paid a price for the president's bad conduct. But if the results on Election Day are not so ruinous for them -- if in fact the Republicans gain only a few seats, or actually lose a few -- then who will take Clinton's place as the national goat? Nobody has said so yet, but the correct answer is House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Already, the same right-wing extremists in the Republican caucus who tried to depose Gingrich in 1997 are laying blame on him for a disappointing election result. They attacked him furiously over the recent budget deal because its extra spending was seen as a victory for Clinton, the mortally wounded president. They were even more incensed that the budget included no tax cut for their wealthiest constituents.
Then word leaked out on Capitol Hill that a final $10 million anti-Clinton advertising blitz by the GOP had been directed by Gingrich himself. The speaker was widely quoted last April vowing, "I will never again, as long as I am Speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic," meaning the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. So nobody believed the denial from Republican headquarters about Gingrich's involvement in the targeted scandal commercials. And almost everybody regards the Clinton-bashing ads as a stupid error, drawing voter attention to the Republicans' unpopular impeachment obsession. The notion that those ads could be stealthily targeted to specific districts without drawing news coverage from a scandal-obsessed media was probably the dumbest assumption of all.
What would constitute a defeat for the Republicans in this election? The conventional wisdom suggests that the party in the White House always loses some seats in a midterm election. But how many? Amnesia afflicts the punditry on that question, too. Since World War II, the presidential party has lost an average of 27 seats in every midterm election. But Clinton is in his second term, a different situation altogether. This year will mark only the sixth time since the Civil War that a two-term president has faced a midterm electoral verdict in his sixth year. The average loss for the president's party in those elections has been a whopping 48 seats. The high in this century was set under Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, when the Democrats lost 71 seats, while the low was set under Ronald Reagan in 1986, when the Republicans lost only five.
"I've been active in politics for most of my adult life and I know that in 1986 we tied for the best record in the second term [of a two-term president's tenure] ... So the Democrats would have to match the all-time best to lose five or six, and I don't think they [can] do that," said Gingrich last July.
Still, as far as predictions are concerned, the speaker wisely has covered his butt. Both historian and political scientist, he knows how to play the expectations game. The week before the Lewinsky scandal broke, he told his fellow Republicans that he expected an electoral gain of "between 15 and 40 seats," a wide enough range to seem safe at the time. His deputy, John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been equally cautious, guessing that the party would gain a minimum of 13 seats and perhaps as many as 20. By Oct. 22, Gingrich still said he believed that the Republicans could increase their majority by up to 40 seats, although he had revised his downside prediction to "about plus-10." And on the eve of the election, Linder told CBS that he expected to gain between 10 and 15 seats, adding, "I never did believe that it was a referendum on Bill Clinton."
Perhaps not, although the fortunes of Linder's party seem to have declined most steeply since the House impeachment vote. But if the election doesn't represent a popular verdict on Clinton, then it could be seen as a condemnation of Gingrich -- the widely disliked villain of the Democratic campaign -- and his four years in control of Congress.
Covering my own behind requires noting that the pre-election polls may be wrong. With a sufficiently low turnout, the Democrats could still lose badly.
But should the Republicans gain fewer than 10 house seats on Nov. 3, the speaker of the House would be well advised to watch his backside. His loyal friends Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, along with Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston, have begun to line up votes to succeed him. The House backbenchers who tried to bump Gingrich off a year ago last July never really sheathed their knives.
Instead of Clinton, it may be Gingrich who is urged to resign and get out of town to save his party and himself. And when the new Congress takes office in January, the summer coup of 1997 just may be replayed as the winter putsch of 1999.