Gingrich heir no moderate on abortion issue

November 13, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I promised that I wouldn't gloat. Not even when the square-jawed speaker of the House pronounced himself flummoxed by the election results. Not even when Newsweek made him their cover boy: "The Loser."

It's not that I'm sorry to see Newt Gingrich go, though he provided grist for this word-processing mill from the moment he announced his child-care policy -- orphanages -- to the day he declared women weren't fit for combat "because they get infections" every month. I avidly followed his failed attempts to keep either his nastiness or his weight in check.

Nor do I forbear out of sympathy for the Gingrich family, though I remember a socially awkward moment last year when I met his far more liberal and gracious daughter Kathy at a speech in Greensboro, N.C. In the search for a safe subject, we ended up talking about our favorite coffee.

This was not as weird as it sounds since Kathy roasts coffee for a living. Later, she sent me a pound of Celebes and a request for a copy of my speech to give her father. Why do I think my family enjoyed the coffee more than hers enjoyed the speech?

But no, I don't seal my lips for sympathy or Celebes.

I refrain from glee and gloat for just one reason. Unlike those media munchkins who believe that the Wicked Warlock of the West is dead, I figure there's always another one in the wings.

Rep. Bob Livingston, I presume.

Kinder, gentler speaker

The common Washington wisdom is that this protege of one revolutionary and descendant of others, this black-belted heir to the congressional throne is slated to be a kinder, gentler speaker. He's a manager not an ideologue, a compromiser not a combatant, and all the rest.

Mr. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, has contributed to this image-making by saying that he wants to model himself after . . . Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. After O'Neill's congeniality, that is, not his politics.

As someone who knew O'Neill -- and Bob is no Tip -- I can only imagine the O'Neill response. But as Mr. Livingston says, "We should try to keep the personal attacks at a minimum."

In short, the new speaker seems to have translated the voters' message of moderation to one of modulation. This transition is not a coup, it's a difference of decibel.

Mr. Livingston may not be as smitten with a sound bite as his predecessor. But at 6 feet 4 and given to occasional outbursts, we are still talking about someone with a 100-percent rating from the Christian Coalition. I am all in favor of high marks, but these aren't my favorite graders.

A call for moderation

In the past election, the strongest voter message for moderation had to do with abortion. Contrary to predictions, the anti-abortion issue didn't rally the right wing. It just alienated the middle.

In California, both the governor and a senator won by labeling their opponents as anti-abortion extremists. In New York, Rep. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, beat Sen. Al D'Amato, a bTC Republican, with pro-abortion votes and ads. The House lost about 10 anti-abortion votes. The "partial-birth abortion" issue flopped and two ballot initiatives against late-term abortion went down to defeat.

But the new leader is as anti-abortion as they get. His claim for "moderation" rests solely on one fact: As chair of the Appropriations Committee, he didn't want the entire budget to be stalled by anti-abortion riders. It was anyway.

Want to talk extremism? Last year, seven of the 13 budget appropriations -- from the postal budget to the agriculture budget -- were laden with these one-issue hitchhikers. Some were so unrelated that it would have been comic if the riders hadn't nearly brought the government to a halt.

In the abortion politics of the absurd, for example, we are now some $1 billion behind in our United Nations dues. We're global deadbeats because the abortion absolutists decided that the most important thing in the world, literally, was a global gag rule. They hinged paying our debt to a ban against funds for any overseas family planning group that used its own money to lobby its own government for changes in its own abortion law.

But Americans don't want every piece of public policy to rise or fall on abortion. If moderation is as moderation does, not as it looks, a true moderate won't just oppose the riders that have become hijackers, he'll get rid of them. Mr. Livingston wants to prove that he is more than a low-key Mr. Gingrich, and he can begin by showing that the anti-abortion wing doesn't own the party.

Let the new leadership take that step, and I'll break all my rules and treat them to one nice, hot, nutty cup of coffee. Celebes, anyone? I know just where to get it.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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