In 1968, a North Vietnamese Communist leader offered a visiting American this analysis of President Lyndon Johnson's abrupt decision not to seek reelection: "In my country, we have purges." Late Friday afternoon, Newt Gingrich, who expended his party's energies for the past two years in trying to purge President Clinton, instead decided to purge himself.
Gingrich's decision -- not only to step aside as speaker but apparently to resign from the House -- is the head-spinning climax to a head-spinning week that began with the downfall of conservatives Al D'Amato and Lauch Faircloth; the survival and, in some cases, triumph of many vulnerable Democrats; and the erosion of the Republican congressional majority. By Friday morning, Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey (who as the polls closed on election night was still predicting to an incredulous Peter Jennings that the GOP would pick up 12 to 15 seats) were both being devoured by a Republican caucus turned into a school of frenzied piranhas. Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston, running for speaker, accused Gingrich of being "lost in a haze of high rhetoric and misplaced priorities." Even Rep. Bob Barr from the district adjacent to Gingrich in Georgia declared that "the current team, I don't think, will remain, nor should it."
But in fact the postelection disarray of the Republicans is not just about Gingrich's personal leadership. It marks a historic turning point, the collapse of an agenda and a style that have defined the Republican Party and driven national politics since 1994. That year, Gingrich proposed his Contract with America to unite the competing wings of the GOP and offer a sense of certainty to middle-class Americans uneasy with President Clinton's perpetually morphing agenda.
But what Gingrich and his allies delivered in various forms was something different: a politics of meanness and intolerance, beginning with easy targets like welfare but finally running aground on the inquisition into the Lewinsky affair. What's more, Clinton himself proved so adept at co-opting a crucial part of the Reagan Republican constituency -- Wall Street -- that the GOP's most distinctive voices in the Gingrich years have been not economic conservatives but the Christian Coalition fringe. It was this narrowing of the Republican constituency -- not the speaker's overreliance on focus groups, as he was charged with on Friday by would-be majority leader Steve Largent, R-Okla. -- that led to the Republican disaster of the last nine months, with Gingrich and his team betting the farm on impeachment while abandoning all other legislative initiatives.
In the short run, the collapse of Gingrich's leadership seems likely to short-circuit the Impeach Clinton campaign. Even Republican attack dog Barr has already confessed that the Republicans' narrowed majority may make an impeachment resolution more difficult to pass. Moderate Republicans like campaign finance reformer Christopher Shays and former ethics chair Nancy Johnson, both from Connecticut, who voted for the impeachment inquiry only out of loyalty to Gingrich, seem likely to take the opportunity of his absence to vote their conscience should an actual impeachment resolution come to the floor. Yet at the same time, with the impeachment hearings beginning in days, the vacuum in Republican leadership could cede the floor to the party's most fanatical voices, the Barrs and McCollums and other petty Torquemadas. Indeed it is precisely at such moments of political crisis that raising the temperature of the inquiry may seem an appealing distraction for politicians and media alike.
In the longer term, Gingrich's departure strips bare the deep philosophical chasms in the Republican Party. Livingston, the only current candidate for speaker, is an economic conservative. But it was the Christian Coalition who first expressed dissatisfaction with Gingrich's leadership as, one by one, he dropped the moral right's legislative initiatives. This division between moral and economic right is sure to plague the party between now and the presidential election in 2000.
Democrats, of course, were jubilant on Friday night. But in the long run, Gingrich's resignation is not doing either Bill Clinton or his party any favors. For all the perils posed by Gingrich's leadership, he's been a massively useful bjte noir, the locus of Democratic campaign strategy (run against Gingrich!), the inspiration for liberal fundraising (donate against Gingrich!) and most of all a sort of black-hat villain against whom Bill Clinton can define himself. Without Gingrich in the room, Clinton's I-feel-your-pain politics has far less urgency.
A shrewd new GOP leader will declare victory in the impeachment proceeding and withdraw; but for Clinton, Gore and the Democrats, with a global economic crisis creeping toward American shores, it will no longer be enough to define the president as the Un-Newt. Thus for Democrats no less than Republicans, the end of the Gingrich era -- and the end, perhaps, of the politics of meanness that has defined it -- marks a crisis whose outcome will not be known until the election of 2000.