GOP needs more than a new face to draw moderates

November 13, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There has been a lot of extravagant talk from the Republicans about how the new leadership in the House will give the party a fresh face with the electorate. Considering the fact that Newt Gingrich enjoyed a disapproval rating of 58 percent on Election Day, a fresh face would seem to be a minimum.

As a practical matter, the notion that the Republicans who take control of the wreckage in the House can make a vivid impression on most Americans is fanciful. Compared with Mr. Gingrich, the Jennifer Dunns and Steve Largents of the House are too much the conventional politicians to attract much attention.

In theory, the bright hope for the Republicans would seem to rest instead with their 31 governors who now preside over 70 percent the population. The big hitters -- among them George W. Bush of Texas, George Pataki of New York, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, John Engler of Michigan -- won their second terms without serious challenge after four years of being responsive to their constituents' practical demands for, to cite the most

obvious example, better schools.

GOP governors

But using the governors to put a better face on Republicanism is a tricky business. None is a national figure operating in a national news media center and thus able to become a familiar figure on the television networks as Mr. Gingrich did with four years of almost nonstop blather. Mr. Bush of Texas may change that, of course, as his campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination gains momentum and form. But it won't happen overnight.

Meanwhile, the risk for the Republicans is that the picture projected from Washington will make it more difficult for that 2000 nominee to succeed.

There is a lot of carefully guarded talk among the House Republicans right now about where the party should put its priorities once Social Security is protected. The fault line is obvious. For many of the conventional Republican conservatives, the first goal is always to cut taxes and restrain federal spending.

But the House Republicans who talk about how the party should "stand for something" or must first "protect the family" are not willing to settle for tax reduction as a gift to take to the taxpayers. These Republicans want the party to have a moral agenda that cannot be abridged by pragmatists. Positions such as adamant opposition to abortion and homosexuality are simply not negotiable.

There is no mystery about why this pressure is so important in the House. Perhaps one-third of the Republicans there represent districts in which Christian fundamentalists are the single most influential constituency. These members were elected on commitments to the "family values" agenda that they dare not walk away from now even if they were so inclined.

But these same positions have cost the Republicans dearly in the Northeast and much of the Midwest. Conventional conservatives, particularly but not exclusively in the suburbs, have defected to President Clinton in droves in the past two presidential elections. And they have done so even in states in which Republican governors such as Mr. Pataki and Mr. Ridge have made themselves politically untouchable and certainly beyond any immediate menace from the Christian Coalition while essentially ignoring the volatile social issues.

Extreme wings

On the face of it, the setback suffered this year might lead one to expect Republicans to be more tolerant of their internal differences in the interest of simply saving their own skins next time. But political history shows that extremist blocs in both parties often seize on times of vulnerability to have their way.

George McGovern was not allowed to present himself as even a moderate in 1972 when he was facing the daunting task of challenging Republican Richard M. Nixon. Facing Lyndon Johnson eight years earlier, Barry Goldwater was obliged to swallow the whole right-wing agenda without concern for the cost in party unity.

There is, of course, no reason to expect a static political confrontation in the last two years of the Clinton presidency. Nobody knows at this point how willing he will be to spend his own political capital in a serious negotiation of Social Security reform. And nobody knows how the Republicans will position themselves on issues that have yet to be raised.

Meanwhile, the most the Republicans might hope to accomplish in Congress would be to avoid being seen as partisan and petty. They tried that already and it hasn't worked.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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