LAST WEEK, NEWT GINGRICH SPOKE a few surprising words -- words that went astonishingly unnoticed, given their ominous ring. "We may lose next year, " he told the annual meeting of GOPAC, the political-action committee he ran for nine years, "but in 11 months, working as a team, we made the tough decisions and laid our careers on the line." Wait a moment: lose next year? Was that Newt Gingrich, the leader of the political realignment, slayer of the New Deal, the most powerful congressional politician since Henry Clay?
It was, and he was reflecting a mood that is spreading throughout Republican Washington. Losing the budget battle, losing the White House, losing the House -- losses that would have been inconceivable a few months ago, all of a sudden are part of the Republican conversation.
The inconceivable could happen only because most Republicans have been addressing the nation more like accountants than leaders. Conversations with your accountant are never something you look forward to, even when the news is good. "Yes, we are going to balance the budget in seven years, save the Medicare trust fund, and cut billions of dollars from federal programs," the accountants say, but they offer nothing to fulfill the public longing to live in a better nation, one in which compassion and community are at least as important as economic effeciency. To judge from the latest polls, the nation seems to be replying, "Fine, but the other guys are going to do similar things, and they have a bigger heart." In a recent CNN/Gallup poll, the president is leading Republicans in public confidence by 48 percent to 42 percent.
What's going on here? How can a president who only last month backtracked on his proudest achievement-the 1993 tax increase -- and who is held in contempt by his own troops on the Hill have a 52 percent approval rating? And how can the speaker of the House, who has delivered on the legislative agenda of the revolution more decisively than even his most ardent supporters thought possible, have a 49 percent negative rating? Most important, how can the revolution move forward when Republicans have allowed its opponents to define it?
There are those who believe that, given his combative nature, Gingrich might as well give up on pesonal popularity, and that his best bet is to continue to concentrate on maintaining the coalition on the Hill and shepherding the legislative agenda. If the Republican nominee ends up being Bob Dole, they argue, and if either Dole bests Clinton next November or Clinton is reelected, Gingrich will continue moving the revolution forward as speaker of the House.
But where is it written in stone that Gingrich will still be speaker in January 19977 The upcoming presidential race will be a referendum on the Republican agenda. If the nominee turns out to be unable to articulate the vision of the revolution, he will not only fail to win the White House, he could drag others to defeat with him -- putting the House, and the revolution itself, at risk.
If we are confident in the revolution, how can we continue to sleepwalk through the nominating process, and wake up, when it's too late, with a nominee using the megaphone of a presidential campaign to explain to the nation a revolution he does not understand? The prospect is as painful as hearing a Schubert song warbled by Roseanne.
Running for president would undoubtedly be the biggest gamble of Gingrich's political career. And there is absolutely no self-interested reason for him to do it. He has said that he would run only if there were a clear moral imperative for him to do so. As he and his wife contemplate the decision over the Thanksgiving break, here are not one but two moral imperatives, and, for good measure, a strategic imperative as well.
The first moral imperative was expressed by Gingrich in his first speech as speaker: "How can any American read about an l 1-year-old buried with his teddy bear because he killed a 14-year-old, and then another 14-year-old killed him, and not have some sense of "My God, where has this country gone?" How can we not decide that this is a moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery, and how can we not insist that every day we take steps to do something?" The Republican message so far has been expressed not in terms of a moral crisis but in terms of dollars and cents. The connection between balancing the budget and turning lives around has simply not been made; neither has the connection between the level of pain in America that Gingrich has spoken about and the legislative agenda on the Hill.