Commentary: Gingrich: Not Exactly The Comeback Kid

When he announced his $300,000 loan from newfound pal Bob Dole on Apr. 17 to pay off his ethics penalty, House Speaker Newt Gingrich hoped to lift a weight off his shoulders and reclaim the enormous clout he wielded two years ago. But the controversial Georgian has sunk so low in the esteem of voters--including those in his own party--that it could be too late for political salvation. Gingrich may have weathered his latest crisis, but Republicans are deeply pessimistic about his chances of rebounding. "He has no agenda, conservatives are disaffected, and the public despises him," says gop strategist William Kristol.

How far has Gingrich fallen? According to pollsters, the Speaker has racked up the highest negatives for a national political figure in the history of polling--three-fourths of the voting public in recent surveys. "Even Richard Nixon had more standing at the depth of Watergate," says New Hartford (N.Y.) independent pollster John J. Zogby. According to an Apr. 7-10 Zogby poll, conducted before Gingrich disclosed his loan arrangement, 64% of Republicans disapproved of the Speaker's job performance, while just 24% had a positive opinion. "Republicans think he's hurting the party," says Zogby.

"DESPERATE MAN." Dole's favorable loan terms--which let Gingrich postpone all payments for eight years--certainly won't improve the Speaker's image. Moreover, Gingrich's ethics woes may not be over. He still faces potential problems from the Internal Revenue Service over his use of tax-exempt funds to teach a college course. And Democratic House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who has dogged Gingrich, is preparing a raft of new ethics complaints.

Meanwhile, Gingrich is battling to reassert control over the House by pulling off some key legislative victories. But in pursuing them, he places himself in a catch-22. To pass bills, he needs to deal with Democrats and moderate Republicans. Yet whenever he tries to compromise, he faces rebellion on the right.

The results can already be seen in Gingrich's flip-flops on key policy issues this session. Consider taxes: In an overture to the White House, he suggested that tax cuts be postponed to make it easier to reach a balanced-budget deal. But he did a pirouette after conservatives howled. Now, he's calling for elimination of estate and capital-gains taxes--a proposal that has virtually no chance of passage. "It's just silly talk from a desperate man," scoffs a gop business lobbyist. "He can't deliver anything."

If Gingrich is no longer taken seriously, that could lessen House influence in the budget talks. Clinton's negotiators are comfortable dealing with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), but they're not sure who is really in charge of the chaotic House. "Lott speaks for his folks, but we don't have any confidence that Gingrich speaks for his troops," says a senior Clinton adviser.

LIABILITY. Gingrich is also in a bind on another big issue: China's annual bid for renewal of its most-favored-nation trade status. The Speaker has routinely supported China on this in the past. But gop conservatives have made mfn opposition a key condition of their continued support for Gingrich. His awkward compromise proposal would be to extend mfn for just six months. Trade experts say his idea is a nonstarter.

As he struggles to regain power, Gingrich is likely to become more of a liability to his gop colleagues. Indeed, some freshman Republicans who won close races in swing districts last year fret that they'll lose in 1998 if Gingrich stays as Speaker. "History argues for Republican gains in 1998, but history could be thwarted if Gingrich is still around," says Rutgers University congressional scholar Ross K. Baker.

Gingrich, a former college professor, considers himself an astute reader of history. So he should eventually come to the same conclusion--and resign for the sake of his party. No doubt, he'd like to be remembered as the political savant who led the gop to capture the House and retain it for the first time in 68 years. That would sure beat going down as the pol who brought the gop's majority status to a premature end.

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