From The Post Magazine
Unite and Conquer: GOP Struggles to Make Whole Exceed Sum of Its Parts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 1998
He is the author of a book titled Lessons Learned the Hard Way, but Newt Gingrich remains a man of few doubts. The speaker of the House is sitting in a hotel suite in Santa Maria, Calif., on a Sunday afternoon in late summer, another day in another city on what has been an endless campaign to turn the Republican Party into the majority party in America and, just as urgently, to rehabilitate his own image. Showered and scrubbed for a political rally for a House candidate named Tom Bordonaro, he is wearing gray slacks and a red-and-white-striped shirt, open at the neck. Over in the corner of the room stands a treadmill, a reminder of Gingrich's other ongoing campaign to contain the spread of middle age.
The talk turns to the impending impeachment inquiry in the House. Gingrich is suddenly cautious. "What the country wants is a Republican Party that focuses on government because the country wants to know that we care more about the country than we care about partisan advantage," he says. "I mean, the worst thing Republicans could do would be to narrowly focus on this scandal. That would be the most counterproductive thing to do."
Good advice, but unusual, perhaps, from the man who earlier in the year vowed never to give another speech without talking about corruption in the Clinton administration.
For three decades, the Republicans were shaped by their presidential candidates: Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan. For the past four years, Gingrich and the GOP's rambunctious congressional wing have defined the party. Hard-charging revolutionaries who came to Washington with a zeal to overturn the New Deal and remake America overnight, Capitol Hill Republicans have spoken with conflicting voices, a discordant chorus of sometimes-angry politicians on a crusade against the federal government. Not even Gingrich has been able to control them. Of course not. At times he could not control himself.
Republicans have accomplished much in the 1990s politically and in terms of policy. But the party is often like the man who has led it of late: talented and full of promise; erratic and given to self-inflicted wounds. Since 1994, Gingrich has been the visible face of the new GOP and the most polarizing figure in American politics, with the possible exception of the president. He has survived an ethics investigation and an attempted coup by his top lieutenants. His personal ups and downs have mirrored those of the party. For all its success of recent years, the party, like Gingrich, remains not quite fully formed.
On the eve of this year's midterm elections, there is a sense that, for both Gingrich and the GOP, a chapter is ending and a new one is soon to begin, as Republicans seek to profit from their mistakes, consolidate their gains and set their sights on recapturing the White House.
In Congress, revolution has given way to the obligations of governing. The coming months will bring forth a new generation of Republican leaders, untested nationally, who will compete to articulate a vision for the party that will move it past the Reagan era and into the next century. The question is, can the Republicans become the dominant political party in America, or will they fall short again?
Like Gingrich, Republicans dream glorious dreams about their future. They look at the past six years through one prism and see an ascendant party presiding over the continuation of a conservative era in American politics. In the time that Bill Clinton has been president, Republicans have gained 12 seats in the Senate (and have their sights set on gaining a filibuster-proof majority of 60 Republicans), 51 seats in the House (and retained control of the House for the first time in 68 years).
Outside Washington, their gains are equally impressive. Republicans control 32 governorships and likely will have more after the November elections. They have taken over 19 more state legislative chambers and added 500 more state legislators to their ranks. Republican mayors preside over America's two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles. Regionally, the South has undergone a staggering transformation, which Republicans continue to push farther and farther down the ballot with every election. In the past six years, 371 Democratic officeholders nationwide, most of them state and local politicians, have switched parties.
Ask Gingrich about his prediction that he would be a "transformational figure," and he recites a series of legislative achievements: "Welfare reform. Medicare. Balanced budget. Tax cuts. IRS reform. Telecommunications reform." The list grows longer and longer. "We will have a Social Security bipartisan effort next year, which will move toward personal savings plans which will be transformational. We will have a massive tax cut, if not this year then the next year because this [budget] surplus is going back to the American people . . . So if I'd said to you in October '94, "This is where we'll be in August '98 . . . ,' I think you'd have said, "That'll count. That's fairly big.' "
And yet through another prism, the Republicans appear far less robust, a party still struggling to make the whole equal to the sum of the parts. They are divided regionally and ideologically, split into constantly warring and seemingly irreconcilable factions. Their presidential candidates have seen an erosion of suburban support throughout the decade. The gender gap persists. Their hopes of attracting Latino voters have been frustrated by anti-immigration policies enunciated nationally, particularly in California. Their Northeast wing, the anchor of the old Republican Party, is now disaffected from a national party dominated by the religious conservatism of the South.
Social and cultural conservatives complain that the party leadership continues to ignore their agenda of opposition to homosexual rights and abortion; moderates complain that religious conservatives prefer exclusion to inclusion. Economic conservatives distrust the social conservatives. Even among economic conservatives, ancient struggles between the tax-cutters and deficit hawks continue to flare in the new era of budget surpluses. The consensus on foreign policy, once the very heart of Republican doctrine, has disintegrated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Isolationists and protectionists have emerged to challenge the free-traders and internationalists. Big business and small business are at war over the GOP agenda.
Because of these splits, factional fights have only grown worse in the last four years. The most conservative wing now controls the party apparatus in many states, while the country-club wing, which prefers economic to social issues, dominates among major donors. Grass-roots conservatives fret that congressional Republicans have gone soft on key elements of the GOP agenda. More pragmatic conservatives worry that House Republicans remain too much a breed apart: undisciplined and too focused on the most conservative voters of their coalition. Republicans face complaints, even among some of their own, that they still lack the maturity to run the government.
As a prominent Southern strategist puts it, "We took power before we were ready."
Now, independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky has given Republicans fresh hope for political gains whether the president stays in office with diminished stature, resigns or is impeached. As the Republicans see it, Bill Clinton's misconduct guarantees turmoil within his own party for the next two years and threatens Vice President Gore's hopes of winning the presidency in 2000, despite the president's job approval ratings and the continuation of a healthy economy. From the vantage point of the Republican majority in Congress, the Democrats, not they, face the more daunting problems.
But it seems to be an axiom of American politics in the 1990s that whenever one party appears to have gained the upper hand, it lets its advantage slip away. It happened to the Democrats after the 1992 election, when Clinton's embrace of the Democratic congressional leadership pushed him too far to the left, leading to a series of mistakes that set up the biggest electoral victory for Republicans in half a century. After 1994, the Gingrich-led Republicans, full of revolutionary fervor and an equal amount of hubris, badly overreached and nearly brought down the House. They underestimated Clinton's political skills and his tenacity for survival, pressed the budget debate past the brink and got the blame for shutting down the government in late 1995.
The budget showdown provided Clinton with an escape from political oblivion, and barely a year into the "Republican revolution," Clinton was coasting toward reelection. Then it was Clinton's turn at self-destruction in the form of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. That the relationship began during the government shutdown is perhaps the most exquisite irony of his presidency. Through the diminishment of his presidency, Clinton once again has set the stage for a battle that Republicans believe will result in gains next month and culminate with taking back the White House in November 2000.
Given recent history, they would be smarter to assume the worst.
Seeking the Perfect Balance
A few weeks after their 1994 landslide victory in congressional elections, Republican governors and the leadership of the new GOP majority in Congress gathered in Williamsburg. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt remembers the weekend vividly in particular a walk through the early morning mist of the historic village with a "mesmerizing" Gingrich. The Colonial setting contributed to the feeling among the Republicans that they were creating an American revolution of their own, and the meeting captured the hope and spirit of the new party.
First elected in 1992, Leavitt, 47, was reelected two years ago with 75 percent of the vote. The son of a Utah state legislator, he got his start in politics in 1976 managing his father's unsuccessful campaign for governor. He later managed two Senate campaigns, worked on the Reagan-Bush campaign and returned to Utah to concentrate on his insurance business. In 1992, he made the switch to political candidate. Next summer he will take over the chairmanship of the National Governors' Association.
Leavitt is as soft-spoken as he is conservative, non-confrontational in style. He enjoys warm relations with many of his Democratic counterparts. Like other governors, he looks back at Williamsburg and sees the seeds of mistakes that would follow. "There was a feeling that the public was demanding a rather dramatic change in the direction of the national government," Leavitt says. "And I think, looking back, the level of expectation and the size of the bites we undertook were undoubtedly driven by that sense of mandate and the desire to make change while it could be made. I remember Newt saying, "I have the capacity, during a limited period of time, to make changes, and we need to use fully this sense of mandate that we have.' "
Republican governors represent the forward edge of a philosophy to return power to the states, and in Williamsburg, Gingrich and Bob Dole, then the Republican leader of the Senate, invited them to become full partners as they began to implement their much-ballyhooed "Contract With America." Dole was motivated in part by his desire to court the governors for his own presidential campaign; Gingrich recognized that governors had experience his own troops lacked and knew he would need their help to balance the federal budget. The governors left Williamsburg with a promise of full cooperation with the Congress.
It hasn't quite worked out that way.
Since then, House Republicans have played the role of revolutionaries; Republican governors have gone about their work more quietly. The congressional wing got the attention, governors often got more accomplished. Throughout the 1990s, Republican governors have carried out an experiment in activist, conservative governance, and they have proved extraordinarily popular at home. George W. Bush of Texas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, George Pataki of New York, John Engler of Michigan, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Frank Keating of Oklahoma have dealt with issues like education, welfare reform, taxes and crime. Their conservatism is often more practical than it is ideological, in contrast to many of their congressional colleagues. In their lexicon, compromise is not a dirty word. Because they are graded more on results than on rhetoric, they seek consensus more readily than Republicans in Congress. Some have prided themselves on their ability to work with the Democrats. Their reward: All are cruising toward reelection on November 3.
But in the four years since Williamsburg, the distance between Republicans in Washington and the states has widened. "There was a period of time when we were very active in the discussion and debate and they [congressional Republicans] were calling on us in a very substantive way," Leavitt says. "But things are not as clear-cut as they were before in terms of our being at the table."
Dole's successor as Senate majority leader, Mississippi's Trent Lott, repeatedly has irritated the governors by treating them more like special pleaders than members of the team. Gingrich has had trouble controlling his own troops, who, as they became entrenched in the majority, found they enjoyed wielding power more than giving it to the governors. Over time, Republicans were speaking in two languages about many of the same issues. In the House, legislative initiatives were couched in ideological and often anti-government terms; in the states, governors preferred to talk about results and what works.
When Republican governors met in private at the National Governors' Association meeting in Milwaukee in early August, their frustration spilled out during a conference call with Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. Pennsylvania's Ridge was among those who complained that the party was ignoring one of its most valuable resources. "I don't think our Washington colleagues have yet learned that a stronger working partnership would inure to their benefit," Ridge said then. "Republican governors are popular across the board because they've delivered, [but] there's a sense that [Republicans] have been marking time in Congress." He is particularly pointed in his criticism of the way congressional Republicans now treat the governors. "We're not a doggoned special interest."
In Leavitt's assessment, the reasons for Republican gains go beyond the fact that the country has grown more conservative and entrepreneurial. As the party of devolution and individual freedom, Republicans naturally benefit. Americans, he says, want more control over their own lives and see the federal government as less relevant to those lives.
But in a country wary of giving too much power to either party, the balance is constantly shifting, he says. "I think to some degree politics, particularly in the House, tends to be defined by who can find the place closest to that balance. And the Democrats [in the 1970s and 1980s] did have a lopsided [majority]. But they carried it too far, and therefore it started back and then suddenly shifted. And what we've seen in the last couple of years is that the Republicans tried to take it too far, too fast. Now there's been a shifting back, and we're now in a pivotal couple of [elections] to find out who can best articulate the balance."
Leavitt recalls the Medicare and Medicaid debates of 1995, when Republicans sought to limit the growth of the federal health care program and allowed the Democrats to paint them as enemies of the elderly. "I remember saying to my colleagues, why are we arguing about this? We're not going to allow children in our states to go without health care, because you won't get elected if you do. So why are we allowing [Democrats] to have the ground here that they're for children and we're not?"
For all their success, however, the Republican governors are still struggling to articulate the proper balance between government in Washington and government in the states. Many of them belittle Clinton for acting more like a governor than a president, particularly on issues like education. Those, they say, are the responsibility of the states, not a president. Of course, that is an easy position to take when all they worry about is the freedom to operate in their own states. But for Republicans to win back the White House, the governors will have convince their colleagues in Washington and the public itself that they have come up with models that a president, not just a governor, can embrace.
In Search of a Common Agenda
In January the Republican National Committee met in Palm Springs, Calif. Abortion dominated the agenda, and people were angry. Social-issue conservatives put forth a resolution calling on the party to deny funding to any GOP candidate who opposed banning the late-term medical procedure known as partial-birth abortion. The issue threatened, once again, to tear the party apart, and only when such prominent abortion foes as Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois flew in to oppose the resolution were party leaders able to assure its defeat.
Six months later, the committee held its summer meeting, in New York City. This time, the abortion rights supporters of the Northeast wing of the GOP took center stage. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hosted a gala dinner at Gracie Mansion and later urged all Republicans to consider compromising on principles to win the White House in 2000. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, whose veto of a partial-birth-abortion bill spawned the January resolution, told a luncheon group how governors are solving problems like education. Moderate Republicanism was on display in New York. No one involved seemed to find the contrast between the two RNC meetings at all odd.
Some of the most intense battles of this election year have come in Republican primaries, pitting moderates against conservatives in Illinois, California, Alabama and Kansas. Some Republicans see these fights mainly as bothersome, the price of building a coalition big enough to aspire to majority status in America. Others see them as potentially crippling, dividing the party and draining energy and resources away from battles with Democrats.
Social and religious conservatives vote heavily in party primaries, playing a significant role in determining who the GOP presidential nominee will be. But the early courting of these voters by many of the party's presidential candidates has alarmed some top party officials, who fear the party may appear captive to its right wing. Republicans need not only the votes of religious conservatives to win the White House, but also those of suburban moderates in the battleground states of the Northeast and Midwest.
Rep. Christopher Shays and Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council epitomize these two very different groups. Shays is a leader among the moderates in the House, Bauer one of the most prominent religious conservatives in the party.
Shays is a six-term House member from Connecticut who grew up in Stamford, joined the Peace Corps in the late 1960s and later served in the state legislature. At 53, his light gray hair is thinning on the top, and he is given to blazers and khaki pants. He has been a close ally of Gingrich and, as a champion of campaign finance reform, a thorn in the side of the leadership.
Bauer, short and boyish-looking at 52, doesn't shrink from criticizing the leaders of his own party, whom he believes have not paid attention to issues of concern to his constituency. "I ran out of shoes to throw at the television set in debates in the last campaign," he says. Bauer worked as a domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House and may run for president in 2000. He is closely allied with James Dobson, the Colorado-based leader of Focus on the Family, whose following among social conservatives makes him one of the most powerful conservatives in the party.
"I am tired," Shays says one afternoon in his Capitol Hill office, "of the incomprehension when my leadership talks about how we have to appeal to our quote-unquote base. The base is so narrow that if we were appealing to our quote-unquote base, we'd be the smallest party. We'd be an irrelevant party."
How does he define that base? "When Gary Bauer says jump, we jump. When the NRA says no, we say no. When Mr. Dobson wants us to do something, we try to accommodate him . . . even when it runs contrary to other long-held beliefs within the Republican Party. We are the party of Ronald Reagan, who believed in competition, free markets, international trade, and that on these things we could compete and win. Ronald Reagan was not the party of Pat Buchanan. Now, Pat has a role to play, and so does the religious right as well. But not a dominant role. They're a part, just as I am."
Across town, Bauer is in his office at the Family Research Council. It is chockablock with religious and patriotic symbols and paintings. Far from being the dominant force within the party, Bauer says, social and cultural conservatives feel used by the party leadership.
"If you look at the things that motivate social-issue voters, America is arguably a worse place today than it was in 1980. Pornography is more pervasive. Abortions haven't been stopped. The gay rights movement continues to gain acceptance. So I think it's only natural that at a certain point a certain segment of the coalition views its investment and says, gee, what have we got?"
Bauer recalls the 1996 Republican convention in San Diego, where religious conservatives essentially molded the party platform, winning plank after plank. There was a sense of euphoria among the troops and then party leaders walked away from it. It was, Bauer says, "the equivalent of sticking a finger in the eyes of all those grass-roots people out there."
Moderates like Shays were happy to see the platform disappear. As Shays sees it, the determination of social and religious conservatives to push the party ever further to the right has driven voters in his part of the country away from the Republicans. Although Republicans have done well among Northeast governorships in the 1990s, congressional Republicans have not fared as well. When Republicans controlled the House in 1952, they held 80 of the 129 House seats in the Northeast. After the 1996 election, they held 39 of 100 House seats in the region. "The irony is that a lot of people want to see a more conservative and accountable society," he said. "They just get afraid sometimes when they hear Republicans talk and act. I mean, we've had a historic opportunity to win over a lot of support and we haven't."
Bauer is just as convinced that the focus on "traditional values" and conservative social issues that worries moderates like Shays has pushed voters toward Republicans over the past three decades. "A great political party ought to have enough gas in its tank to argue both lower taxes and smaller government and also describe what the Founders meant when they talked about virtue."
Some analysts argue that, in the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton and the Democrats successfully neutralized the family values debate by redefining the terms and focusing on issues like school uniforms, V-chips for television sets and a ban on assault weapons that resonated more effectively with suburban voters than did some Republican issues like abortion and gay rights. They contend that Republicans must moderate their message on these issues and find another way to talk about values that is less divisive and less frightening.
To Bauer, however, moderating the party's messages is precisely the wrong strategy. Timidity, not the party's stand on social issues, hurt Republicans in 1996, he says. "The reason Clinton and Gore were able to do that was that their rhetoric on values was competing against nothing from the other end. If you listened to the Dole campaign, there was virtually nothing about these issues. Clinton was talking about school uniforms and curfews and things like that, and Bob Dole was running around the country talking about the Big Tent."
In 1996 Clinton made significant inroads among suburban voters in the Northeast and the Midwest. Both Shays and Bauer agree that is worrisome for the future. They simply have different visions of how to get those voters back. The challenge for the next Republican nominee will be to find a way to unite all Republicans behind a common agenda. But the two factions appear destined for more bickering.
Gingrich for President
It is a brilliant summer evening in a stronghold of conservative America. A gentle breeze blows across the floor of the arena at the Orange County fairgrounds in Southern California, and the parking lot is filling up with cars. Women in red jackets, white blouses and blue skirts distribute GOP literature and buttons. Inside the arena, the county Republican chairman warms up a crowd. "We fly from John Wayne Airport to Ronald Reagan Airport," he boasts. "We think that's the only way to fly."
The rally is billed as a town hall meeting for the National Republican Congressional Committee, but it looks and feels more like a Gingrich for President rally. "Meet Newt Gingrich," reads one sign on the way into the fairgrounds. "He'll autograph his book following the rally." Volunteers hand out stickers that read, "Newt's Friend." Others wear T-shirts that say, "National Town Meeting With Newt Gingrich." Everyone walking into the arena receives a Gingrich placard to wave when he is introduced. All the signs posted outside the arena bear his name. The thickest brochure is from Gingrich's campaign committee, and a smiling photo is on the cover. Inside, the many faces of Gingrich are on display. "A Family Man." "An Animal Lover." "An Army Brat." "Active With Charities." "An Innovative Leader."
Key House members from California share the stage but not the spotlight. Southern California was the birthplace of Ronald Reagan's political ascendancy, but as the county chairman remarks, "Tonight, this is Gingrich country." With the sun setting across the fairgrounds, Gingrich is finally introduced. He marches triumphantly into the arena, smiling and shaking hands as he makes his way toward the stage. A single spotlight follows him up the steps, and as the audience cheers, he beams and waves. From the public-address system, the theme from "Star Wars" blares forth. It seems oddly appropriate for a politician who is Darth Vader to his enemies and Luke Skywalker to his devoted followers.
The purpose of the rally is to swell Republican turnout in November, but just as fundamentally it is to build the foundation for a Gingrich presidential campaign, if the speaker decides to run. The Republican presidential campaign has been underway for months. The field of active if unannounced candidates includes magazine publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr.; former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander; former vice president Dan Quayle; Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, an early favorite of religious conservative leaders; Rep. John Kasich of Ohio; Gary Bauer. Gov. George W. Bush is the front-runner in the polls while concentrating on his own reelection campaign in Texas. Others may become active after the midterm elections.
A year ago, Gingrich appeared headed for oblivion after being reprimanded for ethics violations and an unsuccessful coup attempt by his top lieutenants. A fight to succeed Gingrich erupted in the House between Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana. Gingrich stepped back and let others come forward. No one filled the void. Now he is once again the undisputed leader of the House Republicans, some say the dominant Republican on Capitol Hill.
Gingrich says he will decide whether to run by Labor Day 1999, but his advisers are under orders to do what is necessary to preserve that option. It seems a preposterous notion to his critics and even to some of his friends inside the party, given Gingrich's image and the fact that he registers only in single digits in early presidential polling. But with Gingrich's capacity to raise money and his ability to shape and deliver a message, his advisers believe he would enter the campaign in the top tier of candidates. Ever since what one friend calls "the near-death experience" of the ethics inquiry that ended with the reprimand last year, Gingrich has labored to improve his image. One adviser, pointing to polls that show the speaker's job approval and personal favorability ratings on the rise, said Gingrich has "made enormous progress."
By Labor Day of this year, Gingrich had visited more than 100 cities in more than 40 states, including Iowa and New Hampshire more than once. One of the NRCC town hall meetings was held in Arizona, hardly considered a crucial state for the midterm elections, but one with an early primary in 2000. He is continuing to expand his fund-raising capacity. By the estimate of one of his advisers, he had raised nearly $60 million for the Republican Party.
His allies are studying the mechanics of a presidential campaign, from filing deadlines to the use of federal matching funds. He is making the right local connections. His staff is learning to how stage big events, and Gingrich is practicing his stump speech and style. In Orange County, the town meeting included half an hour of questions and answers, with Gingrich alone on a low stage with a hand-held microphone.
Gingrich has worked hard to rein in his undisciplined instincts and to soften his image. His travel now includes extra time in each city to attract favorable press coverage, and he rarely misses an opportunity to visit a local zoo or science center. "We've tried to penetrate markets as opposed to doing a little drop-by at a fund-raiser," says one adviser. "It means doing more editorial boards, and it means doing more individual interviews, and it means doing more television interviews in each city. We spent a lot of time trying to penetrate in secondary markets, and when we were in major markets like New York or Los Angeles we've done nonpartisan events that allowed for an opportunity for coverage . . . to see a different side of Newt, or at least a more complete side."
Gingrich remains focused on shaping the Republican message for the presidential campaign of 2000. At his worst, his ego and lack of discipline trample his skills as a strategist and communicator. But, at his best, Gingrich is perhaps the most conceptual and focused leader in the party. White House officials say that, when Gingrich is on, he is the only Republican who can match Clinton's political skills. He began the year with a new stump speech, built around the theme of goals for a generation: improving the educational system, reforming Social Security, eradicating illegal drug use and cutting taxes. It is a message light on social issues like abortion. In Orange County, when one member of the audience repeatedly tried to get Gingrich's attention on abortion, he was pointedly ignored.
Lately, Gingrich has talked increasingly about America's responsibilities as a world leader and the need for a renewed debate in the United States about defense. At a late-summer rally during one of Gingrich's cross-country swings, the audience fell silent as he spoke movingly about the responsibilities of this generation of Americans. He had been talking about the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and the sacrifices of the World War II generation. "When people say to you, well, I'm sick of politics, or I'm tired of all the scandals, or why should I vote, you look them in the eye and you say to them, go see 'Private Ryan' and ask yourself, did a generation die in World War I and die in World War II, carry the burden of freedom through Korea and Vietnam, sustain freedom with Desert Storm, so now we can turn our back and walk off? And if they were willing to die for it, shouldn't you at least be willing to vote?"
Republicans see Gingrich pulled in opposite directions as he tries to lead the House and prepare for a presidential campaign. As speaker he must rally the troops, make the public fight with the Clinton administration, and at times stoke controversy to energize conservatives. As a man thinking about running for president, he must project a more compassionate side, stay on the high plane of principle and ideas. But a Republican sympathetic to Gingrich pointed to the political consequences. "When he is silent, his numbers go up," he says. "When he is not, they go down. It's hard to run a campaign when you can't have your candidate out front."
Some friends say Gingrich is not driven to run for president in 2000; others believe he is agonizing deeply as he tries to come to terms with what the next few years will mean for him and his place in history. The politician in Gingrich sees the presidency as the ultimate achievement; the historian in him recognizes that presidents, not House speakers, shape eras; the strategist in him knows how difficult it would be for him to get there. His ego is so strong that it seems unimaginable that he will not insert himself into the contest in some way or another, just as he did in 1995 and early 1996.
Gingrich expresses ambivalence about running for president. "I'm essentially a team player. I was very comfortable working with Reagan. With the exception of the tax fight, I was very comfortable working with Bush. There are a lot of Republican governors I'd be very comfortable with as president. There are circumstances where I may run, and if the circumstances evolve, I will run. But I think I'm primarily a planner, trainer [and] teacher who presides over the House of Representatives. And there are still a lot of things I'm thinking about."
What could bring him into the race would be the emergence of Steve Forbes as the Republican front-runner. In private, Gingrich has expressed his dislike of Forbes, whom he regards as a man who has tried to use his checkbook to buy a position as a Republican leader.
Gingrich insists he happily will not run if the right kind of candidate surfaces, but given his long history, there is little doubt he intends to play some role in the debate. "I have a very simple set of standards," he says. "I want somebody who gets 21st-century Reaganism; somebody who is willing to lead a team, but not to be a Lone Ranger; and somebody who can win the argument. And we have easily two or three people who fit that criteria. If any of them run and they're compatible and can hit big-league pitching [we win]." He names four governors who fit that description. Bush, Pataki, Thompson and Engler. "They all have management skills, they've all worked with the legislature, they've all been practical. Any of those would be very acceptable presidents."
For Gingrich, the question is, can he effectively shape the Republican Party and the country without being a presidential candidate in 2000? But for the Republicans, it is not just a question of whether Gingrich will be a positive or negative force in this time of transition, but whether there is anyone among them who has figured out the future.
The Coming Debate
In fairness, neither party has put forth an agenda with much clarity. Clinton and the Democrats, for all the tactical skills they have employed to thwart the Republicans in Congress, continue to concentrate on issues that have been carefully tested in polls and focus groups. They speak about the promise of a "third way" between old liberalism and hard-right conservatism, but after six years of the Clinton presidency the concept remains fuzzy. Republicans may comfort themselves with the belief that the information age encourages a decentralization of power, but they have yet to find a language that reassures people they are not simply trying to tear down national government.
Since the beginning of the Reagan era, Republicans have been about the business of blocking the growth of the welfare state. Republican thinkers say that isn't enough anymore.
Vin Weber, a former House member from Minnesota and a longtime Gingrich ally, puts it this way: "One thing the Republicans have to accept is that there are public problems, and although the public has changed its mind about what constitutes effective governmental responses, I don't see any evidence that they've changed their mind about what constitutes public problems . . .
"Clearly the public is no less committed to the notion that there ought to be a public response to the problems of income security for the elderly, health care, relief of suffering of the indigent poor, protection of the environment," Weber adds. "They're no less supportive of the notion that there has to be a government and public role than they were 10 years ago [or] 40 years ago. What's changed is simply the way in which they view how government ought to approach those problems, and the problem Republicans have is: Since the New Deal at least, sort of a core of our party has been simply saying no, it's not government's responsibility."
As Gingrich sees it, Republicans must answer the question of government's role in a positive way. "We tend to be confused about the distinction between strong and big," he says. "The Founding Fathers were for strong, limited government. They were not for weak government."
But a debate still rages about the kind of conservatism Republicans should project. Gingrich's shorthand is that the party must develop an information age version of the philosophy of limited government and assertive foreign policy that guided Ronald Reagan. "Goldwater rebelled against the Eastern establishment's model of government," he says. "Reagan clarified it, made it more optimistic and more sophisticated . . . I think we're trying to take Reaganism and prepare it for the 21st century."
Other Republicans regard Gingrich's approach as fuzzy. Still, there is not much evidence that Republicans as a whole are eager for the kind of difficult discussion needed to move them from the anti-welfare-state, anti-government rhetoric of the early 1990s to an affirmative embrace of what it means to be the governing party. Many prefer to profit from Clinton's mistakes. Democrats spent much of the 1980s trying to refashion their agenda to overcome the doubts of middle-class swing voters. Not until 1992, with Clinton, did they find the right combination of ideas and language (although it is not clear how much of it will survive Clinton). Republicans will have to do the same to recapture the presidency in 2000.
Some Republicans see Bush as the only potential candidate who can unite the different wings of the party, but the expectations for his candidacy exceed his record; he has yet to show he has a broad vision of where his party would take the country or that he can handle the rigors of a presidential campaign. Whether others have those talents won't be known until the contest begins.
Looking to the Future
On a blistering day in Dallas in the middle of summer, Gingrich appears before the League of United Latin American Citizens, the biggest Latino organization in the country. The Latino vote represents a particular problem for the Republicans, in part because the party has lost support among Latinos in recent years, but more because Latinos are the most rapidly growing minority in the country. If Democrats lock up a significant proportion of the Latino vote, Republican hopes of becoming the majority party could be doomed.
Gingrich has decided to take the issue head-on with a speech that focuses on the party's agenda and why it should appeal to Latinos. He is chatty and humble to the crowd. "I was thrilled" by the invitation, he says. "I'm a conservative Republican. This is not the first of the five things I thought I'd get invited to today." He assures the audience "my door is open."
Gingrich receives a warm reception, but the star of the luncheon is George W. Bush. Bush tells reporters he hopes to capture a much bigger share of the Hispanic vote in Texas this year than he did four years ago. He is pleased Gingrich has come to speak and says, "He ought to speak from his heart." Then, in the big hotel ballroom, Bush revels in the affection he is accorded, bantering with the audience sometimes in Spanish. He talks about his education program and beams proudly as a member of the audience shouts out, "We love you, George."
For the audience, it is a moment to see a party in transition. Here on one stage are the man who led Republicans to their greatest midterm election victory in half a century and the man many Republicans see as their best hope to lead them back to the White House. Gingrich is the proud-but-scarred chief, Bush the exuberant-but-nationally-untested warrior two men who are potential rivals and uneasy allies in the struggle to shape the GOP.
When Bush finishes speaking, he plunges into the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs. The audience rushes to him. Gingrich sits for a moment on the dais watching. Suddenly he rises from his chair, steps off the stage and wades into the audience himself. The leader of the revolution is not about to get left behind.
Dan Balz covers national politics for The Post. He is co-author, with Ronald Brownstein, of Storming the Gates about the Republican Party.
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