Odd man out

Deciphering the meaning of a national election after the fact is about as exact a science as predicting its outcome beforehand. Just ask the dozens of pundits who confidently foretold Republican gains in both the House and the Senate in this month’s congressional elections. Or ask Newt Gingrich. The Republican speaker, tempted by the prospect of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, bet a good deal of political capital on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But in the wake of an election in which the Democratic party held its own in the Senate and, remarkably, picked up five seats in the House, it was Gingrich, not Clinton, who felt compelled to resign. House Republicans-bitterly split among right-wing libertarians, social and religious conservatives, and more moderate factions-demanded the head of the man who had engineered the dramatic Republican takeover of the House in 1994. Many will call this reversal poetic justice-Gingrich was never one to weep over the fate of his political opponents. And to the extent that Gingrich’s penchant for demonizing "liberals," polarizing political discourse, and delegitimizing government have contributed to widespread cynicism about politics altogether, it is hard not to see his downfall as just punishment.

But the turmoil within the Republican party and the momentary shift in political momentum to the Democrats also reminds us of how mercurial the American electorate has become and...

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