The Speaker Comes Down From The Mountain

Will the new Newt's new offensive help or hurt the GOP?

After four low-profile months of soul-searching over the sidetracked Republican Revolution, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is suddenly busting out all over. But is his return good or bad for the troubled GOP?

There's cuddly Newt holding a squealing pig on The Tonight Show. There's Newt the Knife on a Sunday talk show accusing President Clinton of lying to voters. And then there's Bob-Dole's-buddy Newt, standing side-by-side on May 8 with GOP leaders as they unveiled a six-year budget plan positioned as a "smart" alternative to Clinton's "wasteful Washington spending."

With this burst of activity, Gingrich is signaling that his introspective phase is over. In those days, he had turned over most leadership chores to House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). These days, the reenergized Speaker is busy briefing legislative lieutenants and lobbyists on his game plan to reverse the GOP's slide.

Gingrich is chastened--but not much. He remains convinced that his policies are taking the GOP in the right direction, despite disasters over Medicare and government shutdowns. He now believes Republicans can regain the upper hand by returning to basic principles and futuristic solutions. "He's trying to change the image of the House Republicans from Ebeneezer Scrooge to Luke Skywalker," says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr.

Gingrich's new battle plan is a far cry from his grandiose--and largely unfulfilled--Contract With America. "Sequels are generally disappointing when compared with the original," notes Armey. At the heart of Gingrich's vision is a scaled-back agenda designed to present a stark contrast to the Democrats. Its theme: "America's values vs. Washington's values." It focuses on a handful of high-profile issues: tax cuts for families and businesses, welfare reform, and a revamping of federal housing programs to stress individual responsibility. Gingrich also plans a fierce assault on Clinton's character. Says conservative strategist William E. Kristol: "Even if he's personally not popular, Newt can still inflict a lot of damage."

HIGH NEGATIVES. There's no doubt the GOP must do something to reverse its slump. According to a May 2-6 Harris Poll, Dole has fallen 31 percentage points behind Clinton. Republicans have been tangling over outlawing abortion and raising the minimum wage. And Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), a Dole campaign co-chairman, blasted the unpopular Gingrich and "philosophical ayatollahs" of the GOP right.

How unpopular are Gingrich and his revolution? While the Speaker's negative ratings dipped from 70% to 66% in the Harris Poll during his hibernation, approval of congressional Republicans fell from 33% to 31%. One reason: Armey and fellow hard-liners pushed plans to cut school spending and environmental regulation.

To turn things around, Gingrich hopes to force Clinton to once again veto popular proposals such as a balanced budget. Another project: Enactment of a 6-year, $122 billion tax cut in September. It would contain family tax relief, a capital-gains reduction, and estate-tax reform for farmers and small businesses.

Gingrich is also mulling a series of congressional hearings designed to embarrass Democrats. Likely topics include the Medicare trust fund's solvency woes, use of union dues to finance anti-Republican ads, and re-airing of Administration scandals such as Travelgate.

Some Republicans argue that Gingrich desperately needs legislative accomplishments to counteract Democratic claims of a "do-nothing Congress." They'd compromise with moderate Democrats on consensus welfare and balanced-budget plans. Final action on Gingrich's plans is being delayed amid debate over which strategy to pursue. "They know they should be back on the offensive, but they don't know the concrete details of how to get there," says a business lobbyist.

Another delicate situation is the coordination between House Republicans and their Presidential candidate. "Newt Gingrich is a team player and will do whatever Bob Dole needs," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. But while Gingrich believes that helping Dole is important to Republican chances of retaining the House, some allies are impatient about Dole campaign inaction on legislative strategy. Gripes a Gingrichite: "We don't want to wait for the master plan."

In Republican circles, there's no clear consensus on whether the latest Gingrich brainstorm will help the party. But, say his allies, at least the wily Georgian has a blueprint. Other party stalwarts are too busy hunting for life preservers to think of such schemes, grand or otherwise.

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