Bringing Down the House G.O.P. Guerrilla

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At the American Legion hall in Tullahoma, Tennessee, there are 200 people waiting to hear Newt Gingrich tell them that the sky is falling and to raise the roof as he does it. Officially, it's a fund-raising rally for Van Hilleary, a Republican House candidate. The real draw is Gingrich, House minority whip, Republican carnivore, the man who would be king -- and who will be something close to it in the next Congress. That Gingrich has already spent 15 years there is no obstacle to the message he will offer tonight, the same one he will have delivered in 137 congressional districts by Election Day: 1) Washington is the mortal enemy; 2) the place should be dynamited; 3) he and his party hold the match.

In the mostly predictable world of stump talk, there is nothing quite like Gingrich's messianic oration. He describes a world beset by atrocities from the villages of Bosnia to the suburbs of New Jersey. "If we are not careful, our children could inherit a dark and bloody planet in the 21st century," he warns. Then he offers a vision of salvation and redemption. "I came here tonight to recruit you," he concludes. "To recruit you to the cause of freedom and to the cause of your country." When he finishes, there's more than just loud and sustained cheering. There are shouts of "Amen!"

That's a word you don't hear much on campaign trails lately. Everywhere across the political map, this is the year of fear and loathing. Voters fear the future, which looks to them like the present writ large: more concern about crime, more economic pressure on their families, more of that unnerving sound of something eating away at the edges of their lives. What they loathe is Washington, which is doing too much or not doing enough, and either way doing it badly. In this roiling situation, Gingrich, 51, may emerge as Washington's most influential Republican.

Almost since he first came to town in 1979, representing a House district in suburban Atlanta, Gingrich has been preaching and practicing a strategy of confrontation intended to break the Democratic hold on Congress by fracturing the place itself. By hammering away at its gentlemanly arrangements, its perks and, above all, its Democratic majority, Gingrich aimed to focus enough anger on Washington that voters would finally throw the rascals out. Among the newcomers who would rise in their place, he reasoned, Republicans would at last be the majority again.

In the process, Gingrich, a man willing to stick out his tongue at some venerable American institutions, has become a sort of Establishment guerrilla, attacking the institutions he badly wants to lead. In the election year of '94, when the Capitol dome appears in campaign commercials as something weirder and more sinister than Dracula's castle, Newt's Congress-bashing strategy is bearing fruit. It's the Gingrich gospel you hear in the words of voters like David Bywater, 26, a Nebraskan who is supporting Republican newcomer Jan Stoney against Senator Bob Kerrey. "Seniority means you've been around too long."

But what happens when the guerrilla fighter actually has to govern? That's the question for America as Gingrich amasses his powerful minority, which next week could, possibly, become a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. Even if it does not, a combination of Republicans and conservative Democrats will control Congress and bedevil Bill Clinton. All his political life, Gingrich has been perfecting his ability to disrupt the majority and move the opposition into an increasingly radical position on the right. But now that Gingrich has arrived, what does he want? His record as a builder is shaky at best, and his grand vision is mostly implicit. When Gingrich rallied more than 300 G.O.P. candidates in Washington in late September to unveil a position paper called "Contract with America," the supposedly revolutionary document contained mostly warmed-over Reaganomics. The risk of Gingrich in near control is that he will remain in his bomb- throwing role and never be accountable for the messy specifics of lawmaking. Nothing will do more to ensure gridlock in Washington.

Though the Democrats have staged a last-minute resurgence in the polls, Republicans still stand a good chance of gaining seven seats in the Senate, which would give them a majority there for the first time since 1986. Not only would Bob Dole become majority leader, but committee chairmanships would go to ranking -- and sometimes fang-baring -- Republicans. None other than Jesse Helms would run the foreign relations committee. New York's Alfonse D'Amato, who performed loudly and often during the Senate banking committee hearings on Whitewater in July, would be wielding the gavel next time.

In the House, where Republicans haven't been a majority since the Eisenhower days -- and have been powerless in all that time to so much as bring a bill to the floor without begging for Democratic help -- the prospects are a little less bright. Just a few weeks ago, Gingrich could seriously entertain dreams of G.O.P. gains of 40 seats, enough to make his party the majority and him the next Speaker. Now, though the Republicans can still be expected to score at least 25 seats, their chances for more are clouded by a Democratic rebound made evident by the latest TIME/CNN survey. Asked how they would vote in the congressional race in their district, 40% of those questioned said they would go for the Democrat, 35% for the Republican -- the first time the Democrats have been favored since mid-August. Those results are in keeping with the turns of some closely watched races for Senate and Governor. New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who was in deep trouble for most of this year's campaign, has pulled even with his opponent George Pataki. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles is now neck and neck with Jeb Bush. Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, the billowing Jupiter of the old Democratic religion, has pulled from a dead heat to a 20-point lead over his opponent, newcomer Mitt Romney.

The turnaround is not so surprising. With Congress out of session, the unsightly legislative body has been whisked offstage. Individual members are back in their home districts campaigning, buying airtime with their (usually) superior war chests and reminding voters that, however much they may distrust Congress and dislike pork, the advantages of being represented by an incumbent with seniority are hard to deny. After several weeks of White House foreign policy successes, Democrats are also benefiting from a decided uptick in Bill Clinton's popularity -- in the TIME/CNN poll 48% now approve his performance in office, up four points from two weeks ago.

So while Gingrich still spends hours each day planning for "the transition" to a G.O.P. House majority, he is also making plans for a future in which Republicans return to the House as the minority party but a larger one. "At a minimum, we're going to be the strongest we've been since 1954," Gingrich told TIME.

It's not only G.O.P. numerical gains that will make the new Congress more conservative. The freshman Republicans headed there are farther to the right than retiring moderates of their own party like Missouri's John Danforth and Minnesota's Dave Durenberger. "We're a vanishing species," says Senator William Cohen of Maine of G.O.P. centrists like himself. "Let's be precise about it," says Senator Phil Gramm, who has never been called a moderate to his face. "The next Senate will be markedly more antigovernment."

For that, a good part of the credit also goes to Gingrich, who has given ranks of younger G.O.P. candidates their model of armed Republicanism. Through G.O.P.A.C., his political-action committee, Gingrich conducts seminars and sends out thousands of audio- and videotapes to prospective candidates for everything from city council seats to statewide offices, instructing them on how to do in liberal opponents. In Minnesota, House candidate Gil Gutknecht says Gingrich's inspirational tapes were a favorite companion on long commutes. "I stole a lot of his ideas," he happily admits.

That's fine with Gingrich, a onetime assistant professor of history who aspires to be "the leading teacher of 21st century American civilization." Much of his standard speech is drawn from a 10-week course, "Renewing American Civilization," that he taught at Kennesaw State College in Georgia until the school concluded it was not so much political science as political speechifying. (Now he markets a $119.95 videotape version through an 800 number.) The vision it offers is an amalgam of historical trend spotting bathed in the glow of Alvin Toffler's big-picture futurism, with much talk about replacing the "bureaucratic, second-wave, national-market welfare state" with an "information-age, third-wave, world-market-oriented society." In addition to a regular television show on National Empowerment Television, the conservative satellite channel, Gingrich is working on a novel of intrigue set during World War II. Progress has been slowed by the fact that the G.O.P.'s advance man for the future still can't shift paragraphs on his computer screen.

In any case, Gingrich's ambitions never stopped at the classroom. "You've got to go from teaching to implementing. I'm one of the implementers," he contends. The son of an Army officer, Gingrich had his eye on elective office even before he had finished work on his Ph.D. in history at Tulane University. After unsuccessful tries for a House seat in 1974 and '76, he entered Congress with the class of 1978 and had soon founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of right-wing Young Turks. In 1981 his 19-year marriage to his high school math teacher Jacqueline Battley (whom he married a year after graduation, having sought her out at Emory University, where she had gone to teach) broke up in painful circumstances. She was in the hospital recovering from cancer when he came to discuss the divorce terms. Remarried now to Marianne Ginther, he remains close to his two daughters from his earlier marriage.

Once in Congress, Gingrich excelled at turning ordinary exchanges into blood feuds. When he tore into Democrats who had sent a letter to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, Speaker Tip O'Neill described Gingrich's remarks as "the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress." Gingrich gained his reputation as a giant killer in 1987, when he brought the ethics charges against Speaker Jim Wright that led to Wright's resignation two years later. That positioned Gingrich for his successful 1989 run for minority whip, despite the fact that the House Republican leadership supported the more moderate Edward Madigan of Illinois.

More interested in plotting revolution than passing bills, Gingrich has never made much of a mark as a legislator. He was sufficiently indifferent to the need for stroking his constituents that in the 1990 election he held on to his seat by just 974 votes. Two years later he came close to losing the Republican primary against a challenger who went after him for bouncing 22 checks at the House bank. Redistricting has given him a more secure base and a solid lead in the polls this year, freeing Gingrich to travel on behalf of other candidates. His Democratic opponent, former Representative Ben Jones, has been reduced to showing up with bloodhounds at Gingrich rallies in other districts to dramatize how hard the man is to confront back home.

What Gingrich remains famous for is a willingness to play a much rougher political game than the one practiced by House minority leaders like the newly retired Bob Michel of Illinois, whom Gingrich has the votes to succeed if the G.O.P. remains a minority in that chamber. As his power has grown, he has even been willing to go after fellow Republicans when they weren't sufficiently radical, once calling Bob Dole "the tax collector of the welfare state." Gingrich insists now that he will have no trouble working with Dole, though he manages to do it in a way that delivers another dig. "He's learning," Gingrich says. "He's maturing." Dole answers with the patience of a man who has dealt with pugnacious pups before. "Newt's got a lot of ideas," he says dryly. "Maybe three or four for every one of mine."

In the end, his ideas, which don't often come to grips with the particulars of policymaking, may be less important than his signature mood of righteous belligerence. Voters are bursting with frustration. Gingrich offers to explode on their behalf. Where the blast could send him on any given issue is a detail to be taken up later, though rightward is always the general direction. So Newt's followers among this year's crop of congressional candidates can include Jo Baylor of Austin, Texas, a pro-choice black woman with strong feelings about private property, and Steve Gill in Tennessee, who wants to make Congress a part-time citizen legislature.

How that translates into policy, the nation will soon get to see. Even with slim Democratic majorities, a newly enlarged force of Republicans will join forces with conservative Democrats to leave the President with a bitter choice between chronic confrontation and constant compromise. It was, after all, a Congress controlled by Democrats that tore apart his economic-stimulus package, slapped his crime bill nearly to death and knocked off health care. It's easy to predict what the President is in for. "He has to decide," says Gingrich. "Does he want to cooperate with a rising populist majority, or does he want to go down in history as the last defender of the old order?"

The Democrats may be reluctant to play along, however. They remember too well how Gingrich relished filling the role of Godzilla for the Clinton White House, stomping on almost everything they set out in front of him. He not only masterminded the plot to defeat the crime bill, but in the final days of the last session of Congress took the risk of scuttling a measure to reform lobbying rules that looked like the very thing voters have been crying for. It didn't matter: block that kick was the name of his game, and Gingrich is satisfied that Democrats got the worst of it. "They just stumbled out of that session," he says.

Gingrich would argue, with some justification, that much of the blame for the gridlock of the past year belongs to Democrats who rarely made a serious effort to bring Republicans into legislative negotiations until the last minute. (The conference committee that wrote the final version of the crime bill, for instance, didn't bother to distribute the enormous thing until the night before the House Democratic leadership had scheduled a crucial committee vote on whether to send it to the floor for passage.) But Republicans in both chambers -- Gingrich included -- know that if they hope to regain the White House, they can't merely play the role of obstructionists for the rest of Clinton's term. "The central lesson is that the Republicans are going to have to share responsibility for governing," says senior Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos. "They're not going to be able to get away with the scorched- earth politics of the last few weeks of this session."

In the Senate, Dole is already promising a scaled-down health-care proposal. As for the House, Gingrich has mapped out a schedule for what he will do if his party gains control. "I think you'll see a pretty productive opening 40 days," he says. Most of the bills that Gingrich promises would be quickly moved by the new House are mentioned in the Contract with America, his brainchild. Those include term limits, a balanced-budget amendment -- which came close to passing the last Congress -- and some kind of welfare reform. "Then you'll see us settle down to 60 days of really slugging it out over very hard bills like litigation reform," he goes on. "Then we'll take three weeks off and regroup, and then we'll launch a second wave of reforms."

Democrats say the Contract was the first major misstep the Republicans have made in this year's campaign. Even many Republicans have been shying away from it. For one thing, by promising tax cuts without explaining how they fit into deficit reduction, they seemed like practitioners of the feel-good foolery that made voters cynical in the first place. "If all you wanted to worry about was how do you maximize public anger and minimize your own risk, no Contract would have been a safer stand," Gingrich admits. "It also would have been worse for America. In the long run, the party that stands for something and is willing to live by what it stands for has an enormous edge over the party that is cynical and negative and has only smear campaigns and attack advertising."

Asked to name which programs he might be willing to cut to help balance the budget, Gingrich flatly refuses. "I don't want to give people like Tom Foley a single thing to distort and expand into an attack." He does tick off a few items, such as putting Medicaid recipients into managed care and implementing tighter procurement practices at the Pentagon, which he insists could produce $125 billion to $150 billion in savings over five years. That would still be far short of the $700 billion or so that analysts say would have to be cut in the next seven years to keep the deficit from exploding. And the measures that Gingrich mentions are not cuts, but reprises of Ronald Reagan's old promise to balance the budget by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse -- a place where no one ever found enough fat to do the job.

Democratic attacks on the Contract might have worked even better without the damaging memo by Clinton Budget Director Alice Rivlin that was leaked to the press last week. In summarizing options for reducing the deficit, the memo listed many of the same measures, like trimming Social Security benefits, that the Democrats had tried to pin on the Republicans. Though the White House rushed to deny that it would consider Rivlin's more controversial choices, Gingrich saw his opening. "We printed our word so every American could see it," he says. "The Clinton Administration kept their word secret until it was leaked."

If Gingrich is coy about what he has in mind in the way of specific policies for the next two years, the Clinton Administration is also scrambling to devise a new agenda. As Administration official puts it, "Everyone has the first sentence down: We have to move to the middle. But no one knows what to say after that." For now the White House is looking for an occasion that will allow the President to make a strong, centrist speech soon after the election to place himself alongside voters demanding change.

If Clinton has trouble finding the middle, however, that's no surprise to Gingrich, who intends to keep moving it to the right. "For the short run," he predicts, "we've got to fight it out until one side or the other wins. After it's decided which side has won, then you recreate the middle." What he imagines that center will look like is still an open question. Beneath the free-floating anxiety of voters is the real fear that the middle class is losing ground and that government has failed to help them regain it. Not much that Gingrich has proposed so far goes to the heart of that problem. If Republicans fail voters too, his revolution could leave his party vulnerable to attack by Ross Perot or some other still unformed third force that promises to do the job that they have not. Over the next two years, Gingrich may have the power to bury the Democrats in the debris of Congress. His problem will be / to make sure that his own party isn't undone by what he undoes.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE

CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 1,000 adult Americans taken for TIME/CNN on Oct 25-26 by Yankelovich Partners Inc. Sampling error is plus or minus 3% Not Sures omitted

CAPTION: If the election for Congress were today would you vote for the Democratic or for the Republican candidate?

Are you satisfied with what Congress has accomplished this year, or do you wish it had done more?

Who is more responsible for today's gridlock in government?

Which do you favor more?

Do you oppose passing an amendment requiring the Federal Government to balance the budget if it may result in higher taxes or cuts in spending programs such as Social Security?