GOP plans to dump Gingrich under way

January 22, 1998|By David M. Shribman

CLARENCE, N.Y. -- For weeks it seemed as if Bill Paxon, thrust from the inner circle of the House Republicans in the wake of the aborted midsummer coup against Newt Gingrich, would be shunned as a traitor to the House speaker.

Instead, he's being embraced as the successor to Mr. Gingrich. Revolutions last longer than revolutionaries, and so in 12 months Mr. Gingrich's chair is likely to be vacant. The struggle to replace him hasn't broken into the open yet, but the Revolutionary Guard of the Republican Party already is girding for a change -- and Mr. Paxon, an owlish lawmaker from the Buffalo, N.Y., suburbs with all the passion of Mr. Gingrich but none of his problems, already is emerging as the front-runner.

Differing approaches

The two men couldn't be more different, the right side and the far-right side of the political brain. Mr. Gingrich is voluble, Mr. Paxon taciturn. Mr. Gingrich thinks out loud, Mr. Paxon keeps his own counsel. Mr. Gingrich is an easy target for Democrats, Mr. Paxon a stealth weapon. Mr. Gingrich is a strategist, Mr. Paxon a tactician. Mr. Gingrich wants to restructure society, Mr. Paxon wants to pass the 13 appropriations bills on time so Republicans can hit the hustings.

But the most remarkable turn of all: Mr. Gingrich is now a defender of the status quo, Mr. Paxon an insurgent. While Mr. Gingrich toys in public with a presidential run, Mr. Paxon is working quietly -- 20,000 leagues under the political sea -- to pull off a surprisingly hostile takeover.

The campaign for the speakership is like no other campaign in America. It's conducted among 230 people, not 260 million. The audience is the House majority -- the Democrats hope to retake the House, but the odds remain with the GOP -- and the voters are the politicians themselves, particularly attuned to the insincere and the conniving.

So Mr. Paxon, 43, is moving slowly, cautiously -- but unmistakably. Since the coup, he's been invited into 70 congressional districts, roughly two-thirds of the support he'd need to win the speakership. He has the bearing of an ingenue but is no innocent. He knows some of those invitations are from allies. But he also knows some are from lawmakers who expect him to rise again and want to cozy up to him.

His principal rival is House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. Before it's over, Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana may jump in, along with Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio -- and maybe even Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a warhorse 30 years older than Mr. Paxon.

Mr. Paxon, the son of an elected Republican judge and the husband of former GOP Rep. Susan Molinari, has few bipartisan impulses. In nine years on Capitol Hill, he has never had even casual conversation with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic leader. And he has a glaring liability, his legislative record. He's spent more time getting Republicans elected to the House than doing much in the House himself.

So he's begun a substantive offensive, including a scheme to draw the shades on the Internal Revenue Service. He rolled out an education plan this month. For the next six months, he'll emphasize policy, not politics.

Unsuccessful coup

The failed revolt against Mr. Gingrich's leadership style and ethical comportment exposed the shallowness of the speaker's support. But it also transformed Mr. Paxon, who was sacrificed to preserve Mr. Gingrich's position. The coup made Mr. Gingrich's exit inevitable and made Mr. Paxon's position enviable. For two awful weeks, Mr. Paxon was lacerated. Since then, he's been liberated.

''Rather than sitting in 20 hours of leadership meetings a week, I'm free to be out to promote issues,'' he whispered in a smoky bar in a suburban strip mall the other afternoon. ''This is a chance to go out and freewheel a bit.''

Here's a snapshot that shows how Mr. Paxon's position has changed: Ever since he was a Canisius College student, Mr. Paxon has held a winter party here in Clarence, halfway between his rural home in Akron, N.Y., and his suburban political base in Amherst, N.Y. And here, in Brennan's Bowery Bar, he presides over steaming heaps of chicken wings and a loose political debate.

Last winter, Mr. Paxon spent most of the time ducking out to his car, conferring by cell phone with GOP leaders in a desperate effort to save Mr. Gingrich's career. His friends weren't happy.

This winter he sat back with a big bowl of soup and a sandwich. His gang downed pitchers of beer and traded wisecracks about Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Paxon didn't join in with the gibes, but he didn't blanch, either. This year he was his own man, and his friends were a lot happier. So was he.

David M. Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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