With Gingrich gone, GOP governors now in the spotlight

November 20, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEW ORLEANS -- The ouster of Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House of Representatives, the strongest voice of the Republican Party for the past four years, has turned the political spotlight on GOP governors meeting here and their demands as a group for more of a party leadership role.

Governors here make little effort to hide an I-told-you-so attitude toward some of their Washington colleagues' past insistence on waging ideological battles and slipping into a defensive mode. They point to their own success in pragmatically demonstrating what works in such fields as welfare and education reform.

They have already claimed and received promises of a larger party voice in a meeting here with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and, by teleconference call, with Speaker-elect Bob Livingston. There has been agreement on quarterly meetings among them, and every third week one of the 31 GOP state governors will represent the party in its regular radio response to President Clinton's weekly radio talk.

The Thompson plan

In the meantime, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, a possible presidential aspirant in 2000, already has a five-point agenda for the national party: reform in the fields of Social Security, education, health care and environment, and a tax cut. The GOP in Congress, following the governors' lead, should write legislation in these five areas as cornerstones of the party, he says, and confront Mr. Clinton with them.

He suggested the Republicans in Congress "work with the Democrats to develop something and put it on [Mr. Clinton's] desk, and let him then either stand up and be part of the solution or part of the problem."

The GOP governors have attempted to assert themselves within the party before, but as long as Mr. Gingrich was around he commanded such attention and asserted such vocal dominance that they found their voices drowned out. Mr. Livingston, in his remarks to the governors, pointedly observed that the GOP will not achieve true majority status in the country "with just single stars," pledging that "we will act as a team and we'll all be stars."

Star performer

One star in the gubernatorial firmament, however, is already out-glistening the others here -- Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. His solid re-election has propelled him into position as the front-runner for the next GOP presidential nomination, and whether he likes it or not, he will be looked to increasingly as a key party voice.

Mr. Bush has been repeating here that he hasn't made up him mind yet about seeking the nomination, and he insists that he is too busy with his second-term agenda as governor to give much thought to a national agenda for the party. Beyond that, he questions whether governors are well-positioned anyway, by the nature of their responsibilities and focus, to provide national leadership.

"I can help the party most by doing a good job [as governor]," he said. "The only time I'll have a national agenda is if I decide to run for president."

Unspoken by him is the fact that if he is successful with his Texas agenda, he will also be helping his presidential chances in the process.

In the course of discussing his future, Mr. Bush obliquely suggests that his father, former President George Bush, failed in his bid for re-election in 1992 because he dwelled on what he had done in his first term and not what he intended to do in his second. "I learned a pretty good lesson from 1992 about incumbency," his eldest son says. "That is, people care about the past for one nanosecond. What they really care about is the future in politics. I laid down a specific agenda that I think will make Texas a better place, and I've got to work to get that done."

That basically is what Mr. Thompson and other governors are telling their party's congressional leaders: Lay down a constructive agenda for the country and work to get it done, something they obviously believe Gingrich and Co., in compromising with Mr. Clinton, failed to do in the past year.

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

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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