Faced with mutiny in his ranks and an open challenge to his leadership, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Friday announced he would not run for reelection as House speaker.
The announcement, in the wake of the Republicans’ poor showing in Tuesday’s election, marks an abrupt end to the spectacular political career of a conservative colossus who has dominated Capitol Hill for four years. Colleagues said they expect Gingrich to resign his seat and leave Congress, perhaps as early as the end of this year.
Gingrich’s sudden decision sparked a bloody power struggle among Republicans fighting to succeed him, including Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who announced Friday night that he would run for the speakership.
In a telephone conference call Friday night to House Republican colleagues scattered around the nation, Gingrich said he is resigning because he has concluded that he can no longer be an effective leader of the party.
Noting that the party needs to unify so that it can govern with its newly narrowed majority, Gingrich told his colleagues, “I’m incapable of leading that unity,” according to one member who participated in the conference call.
Describing the call in a statement, Gingrich said: “I urged my colleagues to pick leaders who can both reconcile and discipline, who can work together and communicate effectively. They have my prayers and my thoughts as they undertake this task.”
Gingrich did not say what he planned to do next, but the circumstances of his departure seem to put the kibosh on his prospects for running for president in 2000.
Gingrich’s decision was made after a tumultuous day that began with Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who has a considerable following of his own, announcing that he would run for speaker when the House Republican Conference meets Nov. 16 to choose leaders for the new Congress.
What’s more, Gingrich was staring at near-certain defeat even if he could manage to beat back Livingston and other challengers within the Republican conference. He would still have to be approved by the full House in January, and enough Republicans were refusing to vote for him that he could not get the 218 votes needed to become speaker.
It is a powerful irony that the sex scandal that Republicans thought would bring down President Clinton may have indirectly cost them their own speaker. Many attributed the Republicans’ election losses to the party’s focus on the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal at the expense of developing a campaign message on issues voters cared more about.
Although many Republicans had been clamoring for heads to roll in the wake of the party’s election debacle, they were clearly stunned by Gingrich’s decision to hand them his.
“A smaller man would have fought this out,” said Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) in a CNN interview. “He has allowed the Republican Party to move forward in the next two years.”
Gingrich’s departure leaves Democrats without the political adversary they most loved to fight. It often seemed that nothing unified Democrats quite so effectively as Gingrich’s polarizing partisanship. Still, Clinton issued a gracious statement about his resignation.
“Newt Gingrich has been a worthy adversary, leading the Republican Party to a majority in the House, and joining me in a great national debate over how best to prepare America for the 21st century,” Clinton said. “Despite our profound differences, I appreciate those times we were able to work together in the national interest, especially Speaker Gingrich’s strong support for America’s continuing leadership for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world.”
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), whose relations with Gingrich were frosty and remote, said his resignation is “a real opportunity for a new start in the House.”
“It’s time to put aside the intense partisanship of the past in favor ofa coalition for change which encompasses both parties. I hope that whoever succeeds Newt Gingrich as speaker will immediately begin the process of repairing the damage that was wrought on this institution over the last four years.”
Gingrich’s decision throws the Republican Party, already badly splintered by finger-pointing in the wake of the election, into utter turmoil.
With Gingrich out of the picture, the floodgates are opened to Republicans other than Livingston to jump into the fray. Among those considering a run for speaker are Reps. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in the House, James M. Talent (R-Mo.), a four-term conservative, and David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), a three-term conservative activist.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas) said after Gingrich’s announcement that he was “actively considering” running for speaker. He is being encouraged by conservatives who fear that Livingston is insufficiently committed to their agenda of tax cuts and other conservative causes, GOP sources said.
Cox, in announcing his plans to run for speaker, said he brings to the campaign a concern about “both the ideology and the competence” of the GOP leadership.
“A solid legislative agenda without a well-run Congress will ultimately come to nothing--as will an efficient, well-managed Congress without positive ideas for the future,” Cox said in an interview.
Power struggles will split the party up and down the leadership ladder. Even before Gingrich’s announcement, his top lieutenant--House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas)--came under challenge when Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) announced he would run against him.
“I think it’s also abundantly clear that on Nov. 3, the Republican Party hit an iceberg,’ Largent said. “I think the question that is before our conference today is whether we retain the crew of the Titanic or we look for some new leadership.”
A key question is whether, when the dust settles, Republicans elect leaders like Largent who want to move the party to the right or more pragmatic politicians like Livingston who want to moderate its image. One thing is certain: None of the potential candidates to succeed Gingrich would have his domineering political personality, his visionary aspirations and his distinctive ability to attract and create controversy.
Gingrich’s resignation represents the collapse of his three-day effort to retain his post. After the full reach of the GOP’s election losses became clear, he mounted an intensive telephone campaign to members nationwide to shore up the support he needed to fend off expected challenges.
But his pleas fell on many deaf ears.
“I believe we need a leader who can articulate a positive vision for the Republican conference,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). “Newt is not doing that anymore.”
Salmon was one of at least six Republicans who had said they would refuse to vote for Gingrich when his nomination came to the House floor in January. That vote typically splits along party lines and elects the nominee of the majority party. But with the Republicans’ narrow, 11-seat majority, Gingrich could not win the 218 votes he needed if six or more Republicans withheld their votes.
Reports of that faction’s position were particularly perturbing to Gingrich, and were a key factor in his decision not to run, said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas.).
This rebellion represented the failure of what seemed like Gingrich’s uncanny ability to bounce back from adversity. He had survived two previous near-fatal experiences as speaker. Last year, he faced down a coup attempt by disgruntled conservatives. Before that, he nearly lost his bid to be reelected speaker because of an ethics investigation, but squeaked by.
But this uprising was different and much more broad-based. Discontent with the lack of a strong Republican agenda, weariness with Gingrich’s propensity for missteps, and fury at the election returns was not limited to the rump group of conservatives who had been carping at him for years. This spanned the political and geographic spectrum of the party from conservatives like Largent to moderates like Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).
Now Republicans face a difficult and complex choice about what kind of leader they want to lift them out of their political doldrums. Livingston offers a brand of leadership that is very different from that of Gingrich, who trafficked in big, party-defining ideas. Livingston, by contrast is a legislative craftsman who has a more pragmatic approach
“I’m not running for party chairman,” said Livingston. “I’m not running for president. I’m running for speaker of the House of Representatives.”
Livingston may have a leg up because he has been campaigning for months among his colleagues, saying he wanted to succeed Gingrich if he left the House to run for president. As a three-term chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls the government’s purse strings, Livingston has been in a good position to endear himself to colleagues by channeling money to their home districts.
But he also has made plenty of enemies. He has a hair-trigger temper and has been frequently at odds with conservatives who tried to encumber his committee’s money bills with controversial riders to advance social conservative causes.
Times staff writers Ronald Browstein, Alissa J. Rubin and James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.
A discussion and informal survey about Rep. Newt Gingrich’s decision to step down as House speaker are on The Times’ Web site. Go to: https://www.latimes.com/gingrich
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Bob Livingston (La.)
First elected: 1977
Christopher Cox (Newport Beach)
First elected: 1988
Other Possible Contenders
Bill Archer (Texas)
First elected: 1970
James M. Talent (Missouri)
First elected: 1992
David M. McIntosh (Indiana)
First elected: 1994
J.C. Watts Jr. (Oklahoma)
First elected: 1994
* MOYNIHAN TO RETIRE: Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) says he won’t seek reelection. A22
* 2 WHO WOULD BE SPEAKER: GOP Reps. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Bob Livingston of Louisiana seek post. A16