During his morning-after press conference, Newt Gingrich invoked the newly elected governor of Minnesota five times as though the surprise victor from the world of professional wrestling could inject into the Speaker's exhausted leadership an infusion of populist energy and high spirits.
"When Jesse Ventura wins election as the independent governor of Minnesota, there may be some messages for both parties," Gingrich said, trying to soothe the GOP hangover. But as Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) told me: "Most of the messages from Ventura and from the whole election were for our party. We have a lot of dissecting to do."
While Gingrich is spinning the election on TV, many of his colleagues in the House are contemplating assisted political suicide. The vote for Speaker will take place when the Republican conference of the 106th Congress convenes in Washington the week of Nov. 18. Whoever prevails in the secret ballot will be voted Speaker by the full House in January.
"If I go with what my gut tells me, I will not be voting for Newt," one member told me. It is critical for the Republican Party that enough members go with their gut rather than the cost-benefit analysis that got them into this mess in the first place.
"We do need a change in leadership," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said categorically. "We can either consider it now or we can wait to 2000 when we may be in the minority."
Before more Republicans get body slammed out of office, they should look at Jesse The Body's extraordinary appeal among the young. Forty-six percent of Ventura's voting for him were 18-29 years old. Another fact to emerge from the exit polls was that 28 percent of those who voted for Ventura were Republicans. That reflects a growing concern among members who have been frantically calling each other since the election.
The current signs of soft Republican support, worrisome in an off-year election, may become fatal in a high-turnout presidential year. As they watch five Republican seats change hands, many are now thinking, there but for the grace of God and more blunders by Newt go I. So survival and principle may converge over the next few days to bring fresh leadership to a beleaguered GOP.
Those considering supporting a challenge to Newt are a more motley crew than the mutineers of 1996. They range from Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston to conservatives David McIntosh and Steve Largent -- "Et tu, Class of '94?" -- and moderates Shays and Rick Lazio. Many things -- like campaign finance reform -- divide them. What unites them is that they are reformers standing up against the Speaker who has become one more perpetuator of the status quo.
"David has been getting a lot of calls by members across the country," Chris Jones, McIntosh's press secretary told me, "asking him to take a serious look at running for Speaker himself." There is talk of running an anti-Gingrich slate with McIntosh for Speaker and Largent for Majority Leader. Livingston is also in the running as an alternative choice to McIntosh. In the meantime, Gingrich is working the phones trying to reassure members that all will be well. As he told Peter Jennings on election night with his signature mix of denial and confrontation: "I'm the only person to be part of the winning team for three elections in a row in the House. Unless somebody wanted to be in the minority, I'm not sure what their argument would be."
Graham summed up many members' response: "I'm so tired of being spun." House Republicans have been reassured once too often by Gingrich. As late as 3 p.m. on election day in a one-way teleconference with members, he assured them that they could gain up to 30 seats. Certainly no fewer than six, he added confidently. And that was five hours before the polls closed on the East Coast. If members had logged on to the Internet or turned on MSNBC, they would have gotten better intelligence than their leader was giving them. Gingrich is urging his colleagues once again to put on a smiley face. But they've paid a price for their ostrich years, and fear they may be paying a heavier price still two years from now.
"The great genius of our system," Gingrich said the morning after, "is that a Jesse Ventura can emerge." An equally great genius of our system is that a Newt Gingrich can be submerged. Gingrich has talked and written a lot about "renewal," but now seems unable to recognize that he's standing in the way of renewal in his party and desperately needed reforms in the country.
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