NY-23 Proxy Battle: Gingrich Versus Armey All Over Again

Newt Gingrich made waves on Monday night when he used an appearance on Greta Van Sustern’s Fox News show to take a subtle dig at Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin and Dick Armey – three of the big-name Republicans who have lent their support to Doug Hoffman’s third party congressional bid in the upstate 23rd District.

“So I say to my many conservative friends who suddenly decided that whether they’re from Minnesota or Alaska or Texas, they know more than the upstate New York Republicans? I don’t think so,” said Gingrich, who is backing Hoffman’s Republican opponent, Dede Scozzafava.

The former House Speaker’s decision to single out, by home state if not name, Palin and Pawlenty makes perfect sense: they both loom as candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination that Gingrich would like for himself, and they’ve both used their support for Hoffman to boost their own standing with the national party’s right-wing base. So why not take a shot?

But Armey, the former metropolitan-Dallas-area congressman Gingrich clearly was referring to when he mentioned Texas? He left the House seven years ago and, at 69 years old, isn’t about to run for president in ’12 – or ever. So why tweak him?

The answer could lie in one of the more intriguing and bizarre soap operas in recent congressional history – a failed bid by 12 years ago by a group of House conservatives to oust Gingrich as speaker.

An authoritative history of the coup, which came to light only after it failed in July 1997, has never been assembled, but every version – except his own – paints Armey, who as majority leader was then the second-ranking Republican in the House, as a key player. Not that he was alone: three other members of the G.O.P. leadership, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and New York’s Bill Paxon, also played roles, and the main agitating came from a band of several dozen “revolutionaries” – ultra-conservative members of the House G.O.P. class of 1994.

The insurrection was inspired by ideological and pragmatic considerations.

To many House conservatives, Gingrich was guilty of betraying the uncompromising spirit of the 1994 revolution that had swept Republicans to control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years. Even though they endured enormous grief for forcing two government shutdowns in 1995, these conservatives were miffed when Gingrich decided to cut his losses and strike a deal with President Clinton.

A trio of class of ’94 conservatives, Oklahoma’s Steve Largent, Indiana’s Mark Souder, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham (now, ironically, maligned as insufficiently conservative by many Republicans), spent months in early 1997 quietly building support for a move against the speaker.

They also gained support from Republicans who had simply concluded that Gingrich was a political liability. From the moment Republicans won the House in ’94, Gingrich had overshadowed all of them, often for unpleasant reasons – like the $4.5 million book advance that he secured just after the election (and that he finally renounced after weeks of distracting headlines), his suggestion at the height of the government shutdown that shoddy treatment on Air Force I was one of his motives, and a years-long ethics probe that concluded in early ’97 with a $300,000 fine (which the speaker paid by borrowing money from Bob Dole).

The plot against Newt became serious when the four House Republican leaders – Armey, DeLay, Paxon, and Boehner – met with the backbenchers in early July, without Gingrich’s knowledge. Accounts vary, but it’s generally agreed that things began to unravel when Armey – who believed that he would claim the speaker’s gavel if Gingrich were toppled – was told that he was too polarizing to secure the top slot. The plotters apparently preferred Paxon, who had run the House G.O.P.’s campaign committee in ’94 and 1996 and who, as a thanks, had been awarded a new leadership spot by Gingrich.

Word of the maneuvering soon leaked to the press, at which point Armey vehemently denied any involvement – a posture he has maintained since, even as his story has seemed to shift. Paxon, who was appointed to his leadership post by Gingrich (as opposed to the others, who were elected by the G.O.P. conference), ended up taking the fall, submitting his resignation to the speaker days later – and then, seven months later, stunning the D.C. world by announcing that he’d leave Congress.

Gingrich lasted as speaker for less than two more years, forced out a month after the 1998 midterm elections. By most accounts, he blamed DeLay and Paxon for the coup more than Armey – but the incident shattered any trust and cooperation that existed between the two. Armey managed to hang on to his majority leader’s post until he left the House in 2002, but he never had a chance to grab the speaker’s gavel.

It may well be that Gingrich had other reasons for thinking of Armey when he spoke out on Monday night. But maybe, even a dozen years later, the memory of the coup-that-almost-was isn’t far from the front of his mind.