Analysis: Changes Won't Unite House GOP
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 1998; Page A1
The installation of a new Republican leadership team in the House next week may signal a fresh start for a party still dazed by the results of last week's midterm elections, but it will do little to resolve the ideological and regional divisions that made the tenure of outgoing House Speaker New Gingrich (R-Ga.) so stormy.
Gingrich's departure removes the most controversial and divisive figure from the party leadership. For that reason alone, the atmosphere in the 106th Congress may improve with the expected ascension of Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) to the speakership.
But whether the coming leadership changes make it easier for congressional Republicans to agree among themselves on a new agenda, get their way in the upcoming legislative battles with President Clinton or project a more appealing image of the party remain open questions.
What is not clear from the upheaval in the House is what the majority of Republicans really want. Do they want to return to the heady days of their post-1994 victory, when they dominated the issue agenda and sought to reshape their party? Do they see their party's internal and electoral problems as substantive or mostly a failure of public relations? Do they want a period of cooperation with the president and incremental progress, or do they want to draw sharp distinctions with the Democrats to prepare for the next elections?
David Rohde, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said that Livingston and other congressional leaders will face the same kinds of conflicting pressures that Gingrich struggled unsuccessfully to control.
"All leaders in the Republican Party will be caught between countervailing pressures of the more moderate members, who want less change in the status quo, and the interests of the really conservative wing of the party" who will press for "very significant changes . . . and issues that are not necessarily very popular with the public," he added.
Republicans claim they agree on the broad outlines of an agenda: smaller government, cutting taxes, reducing regulations. But they have deep differences over the details of those principles – and they have serious differences over how they should deal with Clinton in the battles ahead.
Clinton and the Democrats emerged from last week's elections more confident that they hold an advantage over the Republicans on the issues most important to voters. From education to health care to budget priorities, "We are where the country is on the issues," a White House official said.
Given the slim GOP majority in the House, Republicans will have trouble setting the legislative agenda with the ease they had four years ago. One Republican strategist predicted a period in which coalition-building across party lines may be more important than the kind of partisan, party-line politics Republicans have attempted to practice for most of the past four years. But that may not satisfy the conservatives.
"The more coalition politics you see, the more upset the partisans will be," the strategist said. He added, "The conservatives will expect Bob Livingston to hold the line on all votes, but that is impossible."
Nor is it clear whether the change in leadership in the House will enhance the ability of House and Senate Republicans to work together on an agenda. There is plenty of bitterness among House members over the failure of the Republican-controlled Senate to approve a tax cut bill earlier this fall.
Many Republicans remain pessimistic that new leaders in the House can bring about significantly improved relations with the Senate over the terms of a legislative agenda on which the majority can agree.
"What I've heard is that it's going to make it worse because Bob [Livingston] doesn't have a very good relationship with [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott [R-Miss.] and his leadership team," one congressional Republican said. "Newt did have a good relationship with Lott and they did try to work together as a team. Bob is telling members, 'I'll force the Senate to do what we want.'"
Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said the departure of Gingrich and the leadership changes in the House should help to reduce the anger of congressional conservatives, which he said would be a plus for the party. Even more important, he said, the changes may bring about a period of reduced visibility for House Republicans, which could give other Republicans around the country a greater opportunity to speak for the party nationally.
"I don't think they [House Republicans] have much to offer their party right now," he said. "They're frankly in a bit of a mess. They're perceived primarily as a party determined to impeach the president. They're also seen as . . . extremists."
Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), one of the most outspoken young conservatives in the House, disputes that view that Republicans are too conservative. He said the party suffered in the midterms because it has strayed from the conservative principles that brought Republicans to power in 1994. The next Congress must return to those principles or face losing its majority in 2000.
"The message was not that we were too extreme, it was that we failed to be faithful to our core principles," McIntosh said. "That's what we have to get back to."
McIntosh added that if Republicans compromise too much with Democrats or soften some of their positions, "We'll be out of the majority in two years. We'll have to work with everybody to get on track with an agenda that's uniquely Republican, or the voters will say why bother with you."
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a leading moderate in the House, said the party's problem had less to do with ideology and more with the lack of any agenda. "We had a legislative shutdown," he said.
Shays, however, said that if Republicans cannot come to agreement on issues, he has no fear of letting Democrats determine the outcome of legislative debates.
"We have to acknowledge that in disputes between Republicans, the Democrats will be able to break the tie," he said. "I don't mind the Democrats breaking the stalemate. That is better than stalemate."
Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Rules Committee, said the election demonstrated that Republicans must do a better job of communicating their message.
"There's a real awareness that while we have won the war of ideas and have an extraordinarily powerful message, our ability to present that [message] to the public has not been as strong as it might be," he said.
The answers to some of the questions facing Republicans will begin to emerge with next week's leadership elections, beginning with the choice of a majority leader. The Republicans may choose to stick with current Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.). But if they replace him, the two challengers offer distinctly different directions for the party.
Rep. Steve Largent (Okla.) reflects the frustration of the Republican Class of 1994 with Gingrich's leadership and the belief that he strayed from the conservative principles that brought the party to power. Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) reflects the frustration of others in the party who believe that Republicans have failed mostly to put a positive face on their conservative principles.
But Mann said the biggest problem the new GOP leaders may face is the reality that Clinton's agenda is popular. "On most issues that are of concern to Americans, Democrats are very well positioned now," he said. "With their guy in the White House in a position to use his veto, to engage in counterpunching, to frame issues publicly, it becomes very, very hard for Republicans to get back to where they want to be."
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