If Newt Gingrich wins re-election as speaker of the House on Tuesday, two compelling reasons that have nothing to do with ethics will be critical.
The first is a view shared by Republicans of all ideological stripes that he has, over all, been a very effective leader for their sometimes disparate causes. He may be unpopular in the nation, but things are different in the Republican caucus.
The second is that there is no obvious, known quantity to succeed him if he goes, especially if he goes suddenly.
The availability of calm, likable Tom Foley was a security blanket for Democrats in 1989 when they finally concluded that Speaker Jim Wright had to go.
Dick Armey of Texas, the majority leader, has a considerable following, but he has been a leader only two years and rubs many Republicans the wrong way. The same is true of Tom DeLay of Texas, the No. 3 Republican.
In combination, these two factors may outweigh the doubts about Gingrich’s veracity to the ethics committee and his use of tax-exempt contributions for political purposes. They are plainly more important than gratitude for his fund-raising and election leadership, and more important than fear of how a powerful speaker could exact retribution from someone who voted against him.
And Republicans feel they owe Gingrich something Democrats never felt they owed Wright: power. Jim Wright inherited Democratic control; he did not bring it about.
It is that debt to Gingrich, far more than the money he raises for them, that Republicans ponder as they consider what to do Tuesday, and in the vote that will follow on how to punish the speaker for the violations he admitted brought discredit on the House.
So even though 18 Republicans have refused to commit themselves to voting for Gingrich, it seems more likely than not that he will have the 218 votes he needs to be elected by the House.
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