It is not often that this column pays tribute to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But the man who in 1994 played a pivotal role in putting the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years -- and in developing the strategies that have kept the GOP in control -- has a sharp political mind. And he used it this week to analyze the unexpectedly strong showing of Democrat Paul Hackett in a special election to fill the southern Ohio U.S. House seat vacated by U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.
Hackett won 48.3 percent of the vote in a district where no Democrat had ever gotten more than 28 percent against Portman. In the most Republican House district in the state of Ohio, the Democrat, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war, lost by barely 3,000 votes. And he did that after a campaign in which he said the U.S. should not have invaded the Iraq in the first place and condemned the administration's approach to the occupation. Unlike more cautious Democrats, Hackett was unapologetic about calling President Bush an "SOB" whose actions endangered Americans, and about referring to members of the administration as "chickenhawks."
Of course,most Republicans and their media allies were quick to dismiss the significance of Hackett's showing -- despite the fact that it was the best finish for a Democrat in the district since the Watergate election of 1974. The rules of spin these days are such that reality is rarely allowed to intrude on discussions of politics.
But Gingrich decided to ditch the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee's talking points and recognize the significance of Hackett's near win. Speaking to the Washington Post on the day after the Ohio vote, the former Speaker of the House said, "It should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans. Clearly, there's a pretty strong signal for Republicans thinking about 2006 that they need to do some very serious planning and not just assume that everything is going to be automatically okay."
With a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll showing that President Bush's overall approval rating has fallen to 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving -- and 50 percent of Americans surveyed saying the nation's top Republican is not honest -- the evidence that the GOP has a potential problem extends well beyond the results from one special election in Ohio.
But the Ohio vote telescoped the significance of concern about the Iraq imbroglio as a factor in the governing party's declining fortunes -- a point confirmed by the new poll's finding that only 38 percent of Americans now approve of Bush's handling of the occupation.
Gingrich acknowledges this reality, saying that, ''There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas price, anti-changing Social Security, and I think anti-Washington (side of the debate). I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats... I don't think this is time to panic, but I think it's time to think. If we don't think now, then next September, people will panic when it's too late."
Gingrich's warning is a wise one for Republicans, and you can bet that it will be taken seriously by at least some leaders of a party that has mastered the art of maintaining power. As such, the real question is this: Will Democrats be smart enough to recognize that Gingrich is right when he speaks about the energy being on the anti-Iraq side?
So far, indications are not encouraging. An analysis of the strong showing by Hackett distributed to Democratic House after the election by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee failed to make any mention of the significance of Iraq as an issue.