In early April, Newt Gingrich told a meeting of the House Republican leadership that the party could afford to say nothing about the then-raging Monica Lewinsky scandal, because Republicans were "mathematically" certain to gain seats in the November elections. Since the Civil War, Gingrich explained, the nonpresidential party had never lost congressional seats in the sixth year of an administration. In fact, it had tended to gain between two and three dozen.
In late April, as President Clinton showed signs of emerging from the initial tumult of the Lewinsky scandal with his presidential powers intact, Gingrich changed course, saying, "I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic." But he didn't change his underlying assumptions: first, that Monica Lewinsky was an electoral bonanza for the GOP; second, that the tide of voter sentiment was surging so powerfully in a Republican direction that the party would pile up election wins even if it didn't tell the country how it planned to use its expanded power. Republicans paid the price for such arrogance on election day, with a stunning loss of five seats; Gingrich paid days later with his job.
Gingrich's certitude was typical of the hubris that made him the most unpopular American politician of the decade. His presiding over a political campaign utterly lacking in content, however, was out of character. It was Gingrich, after all, who in his first months as Speaker had urged a politics of "permanent offense," involving radical institutional reform, the devolution of government, and wide-ranging legislation. If Gingrich failed to develop an agenda for the 1998 elections, it's not because he didn't want to. It's because he couldn't.
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