Politics & Policy

Why Newt Left the House

Newt Gingrich in 1996
He didn’t have the votes to be speaker.

Did Newt Gingrich resign his speakership “in disgrace,” as Mitt Romney alleged in last Monday night’s debate?

No, but he didn’t have the votes to keep the job.

On November 3, 1998, Republicans lost five seats in the House of Representatives, shaving their majority to 223 seats, leaving them with a dangerously thin margin. Three days later, Newt Gingrich announced he would not run for a third term as speaker.

The pressure had been building for months. In January 1997, Gingrich narrowly won a second term as speaker with only 216 votes — out of 228 Republicans. (Several of them voted present, allowing Gingrich’s reelection.) Later that month, the House voted by a wide margin, 395 to 28, to reprimand the speaker for ethical wrongdoing and assessed him $300,000. (In 1999, however, the IRS declared that Gingrich had not violated any tax laws.)

#ad#At the time, Representative Pete Hoeksta reflected: “Newt has done some things that have embarrassed House Republicans and embarrassed the House. . . . If [the voters] see more of that, they will question our judgment.”

Six months later, a bloc of disgruntled conservatives tried to oust Gingrich from the speakership and install Representative Bill Paxon in his place. After the unpopular impeachment of President Bill Clinton almost cost the GOP its hard-earned majority, rank-and-file members demanded new leadership.

Representative Steve Largent announced in a news conference he would challenge majority leader Dick Armey. He compared the GOP’s losses to “hitting an iceberg” and said, “The question . . . is whether we retain the crew of the Titanic or we look for some new leadership.”

“We have to have new leadership or we will not be in the majority in 2000,” Representative Tom Coburn told the Washington Post. According to the paper, at least twelve Republicans pledged not to vote for Gingrich in the speaker’s election the following January.

“The sword of Damocles was hanging over Newt’s head,” says Frank Gregorsky, a former aide to Gingrich. “If we lost seats at all, Newt’s 216 supporters weren’t there.”

Gregorsky explains the dynamic Gingrich faced: “He had two sets of groups against him: the hard-right class of ’94 and the institutionalists, whom he had displaced from committees.”

Former congressman Greg Ganske, who chaired Gingrich’s presidential campaign in Iowa, agrees that certain groups opposed Gingrich, but believes the speaker could have won a third term.

“It might have been a divisive race, but I think Newt would have had the votes,” he says.

What’s more, Ganske defends Gingrich against his critics, some of whom had a “holier-than-thou attitude,” he contends: “He didn’t have just a conservative bloc in the House. He had to manage the moderate wing as well. Part of the reason I supported him was that I admired the way he did that. It was like herding cats. I find it so interesting now that guys like Joe Scarborough are so anti-Newt when he was actually so good to them.”

Former congressman Todd Tiahrt also believes Gingrich could have won another term as speaker. “He still had enough [votes] to be speaker,” he says. The reason he resigned, rather, was that he felt he would be ineffective if he won. “I think he saw the controversy that he was getting from charges by the Left, the fact that people were upset with his leadership style, and I think he just saw that he wasn’t going to be effective.”

But former congressman Mark Souder says Gingrich had several opponents running against him. In an e-mail to NRO, Souder writes that Gingrich “could not have won.”

“The election results were a factor but mostly an excuse,” Souder writes. Republicans were fed up with his leadership style, and the fact that they were poised to choose Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston as Gingrich’s successor was indicative of their concerns. “We were seeking operational leadership, not ideological or electoral leadership.”

For his part, Livingston, who endorsed Gingrich’s presidential bid, says the change in leadership was a tactical decision. Gingrich had predicted a pickup of at least 15 seats soon before the election, and when it resulted in a loss of five seats, rank-and-file members are quite disappointed. “It was a tactical frustration,” Livingston tells NRO. “Not a frustration with Newt’s fundamental direction of the Republican conference, nor did it have anything to do with his ethical situation.”

Livingston adds that Gingrich initially hoped to salvage his speakership and was testing the waters for a third run. After a conference call with the Republican caucus, however, Gingrich decided not to run for reelection. And when it became apparent that Livingston, who was reluctant to take his place, had the votes to secure the speakership, Gingrich helped with the anticipated transition. Livingston explains, “He wanted me to be a successful speaker, was very gracious and kind, and cooperated with me in every way possible.”

Livingston resigned from Congress before he could take the helm, paving the way for Representative Denny Hastert to assume the speakership.

But Livingston objects to more scandalous claims about Gingrich’s departure. “Romney’s assertion that he left in disgrace is totally wrong and simply untrue,” he says. Yes, the ethics charge was water under the bridge by 1998, and Gingrich could have put up a spirited fight for his speakership.

But it is more than likely he would have lost.

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review

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