A Caretaker Speaker
Jude Wanniski
April 2, 1997

 

Memo To: Rep. Henry Hyde [R-IL]
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Caretaker Speaker

I've been suggesting to a few people we know that the Republican leadership in Congress ask Newt to voluntarily step aside as Speaker for the duration of the 105th Congress, and that you be asked to serve out the balance of the term. Here is my reasoning:

1. Newt's personal difficulties have reached a point where his mind is no longer free to pursue the interests of the Republican Party or the country. He's not been mortally wounded, I don't think, but it seems obvious to many of us who continue to admire him for his past contributions that he needs time for quiet convalescence. A leader of Newt's prominence cannot be so preoccupied with his own personal problems that he is unable to see how his temporary weakness can be exploited by political forces he normally would be able to handle.

2. The position of Speaker of the House of Representatives in some ways is the most important in the U.S. government. In the present instance, the President himself has been so weakened by his party's financial scandals that he is unable to chart a course for the government and carry it out. Washington is spinning its wheels, as it is now becoming obvious to the people. In the best of times, when he was at the peak of his powers, Newt had a tendency to act impulsively, without consulting his colleagues on major party decisions. His impulse to announce the sequence of tax cuts and budget balance without consulting anyone was a major error, a fundamental error that cannot be corrected while he remains as Speaker. It has undermined the financial markets here and abroad and unless corrected will lead to a series of difficulties in public finance and public policy.

3. The ethics issue and the $300,000 penalty hanging over Newt's head are only the most palpable signs of his personal difficulties. However he disposes of the matter, we still will be left with a Speaker whose state of mind cannot be repaired under the legislative and political pressures that have accumulated. From my soundings in Washington this week, I find a universal sense that sooner or later Newt will either have to resign as Speaker or will have to publicly announce that he will not seek re-election as Speaker in the 106th Congress. The reasoning is that if he does not, the electorate will have little choice in signaling its distress with his performance than to turn the House back to the Democrats.

4. If that problem has to be addressed sooner or later, it should be clear to the GOP leadership that there is no point in prolonging the agony. The only question is one of process. Would the members who are open in their intent to remove Newt be required to go through the bloody process of finding a mechanism that will succeed? Should the party be riven as members are forced to take sides in attempts to seek a vote of no-confidence? If the President were Republican, or even if he were sufficiently strong in his own party to act wisely in the national interest, we might be able to contemplate that kind of knock-down, all-out intramural fight in the GOP caucus. As it is, there is no room for that option. We simply must find a way to allow Newt to take himself out of the line of fire in a way that gives him a genuine opportunity to make a comeback.

5. If he were persuaded that it would be best for all if he stood aside as Speaker while retaining his seat, the only process that would realistically enable him to seek election as Speaker in 1999 requires a caretaker Speaker for the balance of the 105th. The GOP caucus would not put itself through the extremely difficult process of choosing a successor to Newt without expecting that person would be re-elected in 1999. The scenario itself is one that practically invites Newt to resign and remain in private life, his career stained forever in history. The option seems a non-starter, even though all concerned would be aware that Newt would remain crippled and almost certainly forced to announce sometime next year that he would not seek re-election.

6. I write this to you, Henry, because yours is the only name that surfaces in this scenario. No other member has your seniority, your reputation for both wisdom and integrity, and the sense that your ego would permit you to serve as "caretaker" only in the sense that you would not expect to stand for re-election in 1999. The government does not need a Speaker at this moment who would have to not only slice himself up in the caucus to win a majority of the votes, but also do hourly calculations on how to win re-election. Those many GOP activists and opinion leaders who I have spoken to about this know you would not snooze your way through the job, but would be able to coalesce immediately with Dick Armey, Bill Archer and John Kasich in the House, and with Trent Lott in the Senate.

7. This temporary change would permit an immediate reassessment of congressional priorities and allow the government to proceed with serious business, as opposed to the trivia that now occupies both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue because of the problems of Newt and the President. Dick Armey's idea that 1997 would at last provide an opportunity to get some business completed including a growth-oriented bipartisan budget has not been realized thus far. It seems destined for oblivion unless the central problem is resolved, and the country could not expect serious business in 1998, an election year, if it could not manage it in 1997.

8. Don't believe that the economy is sound enough to weather further gridlock. The broad stock market which is the best forecaster we have of the real economy's future has been crumbling as the weaknesses in the government have opened up. The recent sharp sell-off began with Majority Whip Tom Delay's trial balloon on behalf of the austerity forces, which preceded by several days Newt's blunder on the sequence of tax cuts. The financial markets must discount the steadily rising risks of partisan gridlock if there is no reasonable solution to the problem.

9. I'm sending this memo to Newt, of course, and to the other Republican leaders. I'm also circulating it among the party's intellectual activists, if only to present a reasoned scenario that could be a starting point for a solution. I've known and admired Newt for almost 20 years. I certainly don't want to see him destroyed and genuinely believe he could make a comeback if we help him find a way to do so. I'd be pleased to hear if you have other thoughts on how this may be accomplished, if you think the proposal I suggest is unrealistic or inappropriate.