Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Did Gingrich leave speakership "in disgrace"?

In his first Florida appearance since losing the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney fired away at the man who beat him in the Palmetto State -- Newt Gingrich -- during a campaign appearance in Ormond Beach on Jan. 22, 2012.

"He had to resign in disgrace," Romney told listeners. "I don't know whether you knew that." He made a similar comment during the debate in Tampa on Jan. 23.

We considered whether we could rate this on the Truth-O-Meter, but ultimately decided that defining the term "in disgrace" is a matter of opinion and not subject to fact-checking. However, we’ll spell out what we know about Gingrich's resignation as House speaker to help readers make up their own minds.

It’s accurate for Romney to point out that Gingrich had a long-running ethics problem while serving in Congress. As we’ve written before, the case primarily involved a course at Kennesaw State College that Gingrich taught while in Congress. The organizers of the course solicited financial support from "individuals, corporations and foundations," promising that the project qualified for tax-exempt status. But the ethics committee concluded that the course was "actually a coordinated effort" to "help in achieving a partisan, political goal" -- something that would run afoul of its tax-exempt status. A further problem for Gingrich was that during the investigation, he submitted letters from his lawyers for which "the subcommittee was unable to find any factual basis." Gingrich "should have known" that the information in the letters "was inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable," according to the ethics committee.

The allegations were largely adjudicated by January 1997, with Gingrich agreeing -- in what amounted to a plea bargain -- to pay a sum of $300,000 and admit that he had "engaged in conduct that did not reflect creditably on the House of Representatives." The settlement of the charges won approval from the full ethics committee by a 7-1 margin, and the entire House passed the ethics report 395 to 28, including by a 196-26 margin among Republicans.

He became the first speaker in history to be sanctioned in this fashion by the House. (Here’s a time line of the full case.) The episode caused damage to Gingrich’s reputation -- but it did not, by itself, lead to Gingrich’s departure as speaker.

"He survived the hit, retained his speakership and served through the next two years," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

Experts we spoke to pointed to two factors that precipitated Gingrich’s downfall in addition to the ethics investigation -- Gingrich’s overall approach as speaker, which Ornstein calls "erratic and impulsive," and the Republicans’ weak performance in the 1998 midterm elections.

About six months after the ethics charges were settled, a number of House Republicans, including some of his fellow leaders, mounted a coup against him in the summer of 1997. The coup failed -- Gingrich remained speaker -- but the episode was widely seen as demonstrating uneasiness within his own ranks about Gingrich’s choices of strategy and tactics. Making matters worse for Gingrich’s standing among his own colleagues were widespread rumors about Ginrgich’s infidelity, which were later proven to be true.

"Even though the coup failed, conservatives such as Reps. David McIntosh of Indiana and Steve Largent of Oklahoma and outsiders such as the Rev. James Dobson, a religious broadcaster, were ready with long, sharpened knives" when the electoral results proved disappointing, according to a New York Times News Service report at the time. And disappointing they proved to be -- a loss of five seats, which was far worse than historical averages.

Given the dissatisfaction within his own ranks, Gingrich "was going to have a hard time holding onto power if the elections in 1998 went south -- and they did," said Glenn LeMunyon, a former House leadership aide who now works as a Washington lobbyist.

Officially, Gingrich’s departure occurred just a few days after the midterm election. It came amid signs that if Gingrich did not jump, he would be pushed. No vote was ever taken, but it was clear that he would not have received the necessary 218 votes to secure another term as speaker.

"He left under a cloud," said John Feehery, a former House leadership aide. Given the circumstances, "Newt decided that discretion was better than valor."

The New York Times put it this way in its Nov. 7, 1998, coverage of Gingrich’s departure: "The anger against him had been building all year, and Republicans said that by today Mr. Gingrich's troubles ran extremely deep, fueled by his miscalculations on election strategy, his persistent unpopularity with the public and his failure to rally the divided House Republicans around an agenda."

House Republicans also spoke of how Gingrich irritated them the morning after the election by shirking responsibility for the results during conference calls, blaming pollsters and media instead.

"That call really made members angry," one GOP pollster told the Washington Post. "There was no sense of personal responsibility; he offered no ideas for the future, no ideas for how to prevent this from happening again. That call turned a lot of people against him."

"I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals," he reportedly said during another conference call with members. "My only fear would be that, if I tried to stay, it would just overshadow whoever my successor is."

It’s clear to us that Gingrich’s past ethical issues were a contributing factor to his downfall. But they were not the primary reason for his departure as speaker, which came from a combination of taking responsibility for poor electoral results, dwindling confidence in his leadership, and the practical realization, on his part, that he couldn’t win another term as speaker.

"He did not leave in a blaze of glory," Ornstein said, "but he did not ‘resign in disgrace.’"