Exiling Gingrich the least of GOP's problems

November 10, 1998|By Jay Bookman

IN ANCIENT Israel, Hebrew priests would place their hands on the head of a goat and pile all of the tribe's sins and transgressions on the animal. Then they would banish the scapegoat to the wilderness, carrying all of their problems with it.

It's not going to be that easy for the Republicans. Last week they piled all of their problems on the head of Newt Gingrich, and on Friday they banished him to the political wilderness. But his exile does not lessen or diminish the the GOP's underlying predicament.

To the contrary, the presence of Mr. Gingrich is all that had saved the party from a bitter civil war over its identity. His success in bringing the Republicans into the majority in 1994 earned him the loyalty of all factions of the party. No other figure now can command that broad support. He also has been such a dominating figure within the party that moderates and conservatives alike directed their anger at him, rather than each other. Without Mr. Gingrich to absorb that anger, they're going to be at each other's throats.

In fact, the election of 1994 looks more and more now like a blip on the political screen, a historical accident in danger of reversal as early as the 2000 elections.

To avoid that fate, Republicans would have to agree on a platform more compelling than hating President Clinton, hating government, distrusting minorities and opposing abortion. And it's hard to see how that's going to happen.

The social conservatives who control the party structure believe fervently in their message because it works so well back in their home districts. But as we've seen in the past two presidential elections, that message is rejected when it's taken before a larger audience.

Losing bids

In 1992, George Bush got 38 percent of the vote; in 1996, Bob Dole got 41 percent. No major party has performed so poorly in back-to-back presidential elections since the '30s, when Republican candidates Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon were swamped by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

That trend was confirmed in last week's midterm election. The best news for Republicans was the strong performance of GOP candidates for governor in important swing states. The sons of President Bush, Jeb and George W., easily won races for governor in Florida and Texas. The GOP also won races in Massachusetts and New York, states where Republican members of Congress are having a hard time holding their seats.

Those candidates won because they rejected the hard-right emphasis on social issues and instead stressed their ability as good managers. They came across as moderate, competent people who see government as a legitimate tool for improving the lives of Americans, and, as a result, they got elected.

Northern chill

It's also instructive to note the states where the Republicans were defeated. In the House, they lost seats in Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, all areas well outside the South, where family values play best. It is hard to argue that those races could have been won by a more conservative approach.

More surprisingly, the Republicans also lost hard-fought races for governor in Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, the very heart of Dixie. Even here in the South, the pure hard-core conservative message doesn't always translate well when it is taken statewide.

In the end, it isn't credible or fair to blame the lack of a Republican agenda on Mr. Gingrich, the most agenda-driven politician of his generation. He simply worked with what the Republican caucus could agree upon, and that wasn't enough to define a major party.

Congressional Republicans seem to have settled on Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana to replace Mr. Gingrich as speaker, but no politician, no matter how talented, will be able to hold the GOP caucus together for the next two years.

The intraparty conflict will intensify when candidates begin to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In his victory speech a week ago, Governor Bush of Texas was already trying out his theme of "compassionate conservatism," while Steve Forbes and others were renewing their allegiance to the social issues right.

As for Mr. Gingrich, his future as a politician does not look bright. He long has thought of himself -- and spoken of himself -- in outrageously grandiose terms. He was, he said, "a definer of Western civilization" and "all that stands between us and Auschwitz."

National exit polls on Election Day gave Mr. Gingrich a favorable rating of only 36 percent, with 58 percent of voters holding an unfavorable view.

That is not some temporary decline. His numbers have lingered in that range for several years, long enough for the concrete to set. As a result, a successful comeback as an elected official -- at least at any level that will satisfy the Gingrich ego -- seems far-fetched.

Jay Bookman is associate editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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