Conservative leader William J. Bennett on Wednesday accused House Speaker Newt Gingrich of “cozying up” to liberal Democrats to bolster his political standing, and called on the embattled Georgia Republican to “change course or step down” from his leadership post.
The immediate object of Bennett’s criticism was Gingrich’s recent effort to build bridges with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic civil rights leader. But Bennett also launched a broader criticism of Gingrich, saying the speaker had strayed from his conservative base.
“Newt needs to be reminded he is the leader of the Republican Party,” Bennett said in a telephone interview.
Coming from an influential conservative like Bennett, the attack is a sign that while Gingrich may have survived the House Ethics Committee’s probe of his political affairs, GOP debate about his future as speaker may not be over.
House Republicans have rallied around Gingrich in the wake of the ethics flap, and they show no signs of ousting him. But some conservatives say they are worried he is too politically weakened to be an aggressive leader for their causes.
“There is a fairly widespread sense of concern about Gingrich seeking to personally rehabilitate himself by--not just being prudent or a little kinder and gentler--but by being unwilling to stick by his allies and take tough decisions,” said Bill Kristol, a Bennett ally who is editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Gingrich, astonished when told of Bennett’s criticism, made no apologies for reaching out to Jackson and other Democrats who want to work with him to fight drug abuse and other social ills.
“What’s the beef?” Gingrich said. “I’m courting every American of any background.”
The backdrop for Bennett’s criticism was Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where Gingrich had invited Jackson to sit with the speaker’s wife in his ceremonial box in the House gallery. Earlier this year, Gingrich had spoken with Jackson about race and poverty issues.
Bennett lambasted Gingrich for giving Jackson a place of honor at the event, calling Jackson “one of the most polarizing public figures in America.” Bennett’s staff prepared a collection of comments they attributed to Jackson over the years, including some in which Jackson compared conservatism to fascism and apartheid.
Bennett also criticized Gingrich for his handling of a controversy surrounding Jackson and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in Congress, whom Gingrich chose to deliver the GOP response to the State of the Union. Watts was quoted in Tuesday morning’s Washington Post expressing contempt for “race-hustling poverty pimps"--a phrase the Post said clearly referred to Jackson and other liberal black leaders.
In a phone conversation with Jackson after the article appeared, Gingrich dissociated himself from Watts’ remark, according to Jackson. Watts has said he was not referring to Jackson.
Bennett also criticized the speaker’s praise of two liberal Democrats, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, in his first speech of the year.
“I regard that as playing to the left wing of the Democratic Party,” Bennett said. “Reaching out is one thing. Cozying up to and seeking the approval of is something else.”
He said Gingrich’s gestures would do nothing to win over liberals to his cause but risk eroding his support among conservatives.
“It may be to rehabilitate himself,” Bennett said. “But it won’t work.”
Gingrich said he was trying to broaden the party’s appeal and to build alliances with anyone who shares his agenda.
Lauren Maddox, a spokeswoman for Gingrich, suggested it was hypocritical of Bennett to criticize the speaker for trying to reach out to liberals when Bennett himself has worked closely with a liberal Democrat, C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, in his campaign to clean up lyrics in rap music.
Bennett was largely silent about Gingrich during last month’s stormy debate about the investigation of allegations that Gingrich improperly mingled political and charitable activities and misled the Ethics Committee during the probe.
“It was right for people to stand by Newt when he was under attack,” Bennett said. “But now Newt must take an assessment of whether he is helping or hurting the cause.”