CONASON: A Poke in the Eye for Newt's Stooges

The aborted coup against Newt Gingrich by his restive troops and would-be successors left a residue of journalistic analogies, none of them too convincing in their implicit flattery. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? No. The French Revolution? Mais non. Stalin's purge of the Old Bolsheviks? Nyet, nyet, nyet. Such weighty allusions served only to mock the literary pretensions of those who suggested them. Pop culture references sounded slightly more hip--the Keystone Kops, Inspector Clouseau--but still somehow invested the Speaker and his treacherous cronies with an unearned dignity. No, in this case the best comparison is the simplest. The House Republican leadership consists of the Three Stooges without the good intentions. (And with a cameo appearance by Bill Paxon, the ousted leadership chairman, as the slightly smarmy straight man who gets the girl.) But even this is not a perfect metaphor. The Stooges, after poking each other in the eye and conking each other on the head, always managed a happy ending. The outlook for Mr. Gingrich and his sullen colleagues is considerably less promising, despite his assurances that he expects to hold the Speaker's gavel for another five years. He has survived for the moment, mostly due to the competing ambitions of his buffoonish deputies. But the frustrations that provoked his once-adoring troops have not abated, and they are likely to grow more acute in the coming months. The irony is that the Speaker has been trying to save the very people who plotted his political assassination. His plunging approval ratings -- like a smack on the head with a dead fish -- have awakened him to the reality that the Republican "revolution" is a political suicide pact. The latent opportunism that always advanced Mr. Gingrich's career reasserted itself during the past several months, as he came to understand that his "revolutionary" program and the tactics used to promote it have repelled most voters. The electorate may endorse a balanced budget and support work instead of welfare, but will never accept the dismantling of Medicare, corporate ravaging of the environment, raids on the Treasury by the rich or human servitude at Third World wages. This negative epiphany has not yet occurred among the Speaker's top lieutenants, however, nor to the zealots who were elected in 1994 with the Speaker's help. The first signs of a serious leadership rift came last summer, when Mr. Gingrich agreed to an increase in the Federal minimum wage, bowing to electoral reality and helping to preserve the Republican majority in the House. This act of heresy outraged Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and many of the Republican newcomers, who believe there should be no minimum wage. They voted against the long overdue increase in defiance of their leader. At that point, the Three Stooges briefly seized control as Mr. Gingrich sank into an apparent depression. Hoping to outmaneuver the White House on the budgetary issues that damaged the Republicans so badly in 1995, Mr. Armey came up with the clownish idea of attaching poisonous riders to a disaster-relief bill. His ostensible intention was to prevent another Government shutdown, by tying the President to a fixed budget in the absence of an agreement, but his tactic of holding the Midwest flood victims hostage backfired disastrously. Since then, Mr. Gingrich has gradually re-emerged to seek a fiscal agreement with the President, whose popularity has soared along with the economy. But his most right-wing troops don't want any agreement that is acceptable to Mr. Clinton, and they despise Mr. Gingrich for negotiating with him. They remain true to their creed, demanding a tax cut that would lavish benefits on the idle rich and withhold relief from the working poor. Rather than share the benefits of the shrinking deficit broadly and equitably, these conservative ideologues would prefer no budget deal at all. They believe, as Mr. Paxon suggested the other day, that the country would embrace their ugly message if only it was delivered by a less-ugly messenger. That was the real delusion behind the botched coup attempt. The argument behind the scenes is over strategy for next year's midterm election. Conventional analysis dictates that the Republicans ought to be safe in 1998, but they are nervous. Mr. Gingrich worries about facing the voters without a balanced budget agreement and a tax cut, while his rebellious mob worries about the Speaker's constantly declining poll numbers. The President need only stand fast on liberal principle to place Mr. Gingrich in the quandary of either accepting a fiscal accord that is unacceptable to his members, or taking the blame for achieving nothing at all. Worse still for the Speaker is that in order to save his job, he must strive to re-elect the same politicians who have vowed to depose him as soon as the election is over. He must do so, moreover, without the help of Mr. Paxon, whose fund-raising skills were so crucial to the last two Republican victories. This Republican crisis presents a Democratic opportunity of historic proportions, if only the Democrats are bold enough to exploit it.

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