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Even Range Safetyman Bush Can’t Curb Gingrich

<i> Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. </i>

The utter desperation of House Republicans showed up when they selected Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia as their deputy floor leader.

Suffering through their 35th year as the minority party in the lower chamber, Republican members evidently decided that their powerlessness could at least be enlivened by making a major party spokesmen out of the great thunder lizard of the GOP conference, a member so diabolically nettlesome to Democratic leaders that he has lured them into violations of House rules in their eagerness to strike out at him.

Gingrich is the ringleader of a group of House Republicans calling themselves the Conservative Opportunity Society. These GOP fire-eaters have long looked upon the moderate and conciliatory leadership of Rep. Bob Michel as a kind of Quisling regime--seeking accommodation with the numerically dominant Democrats in exchange for token benefits. Gingrich is a parliamentary brawler of the cut-and-thrust school of debate. His narrow victory over the more temperate Edward R. Madigan of Illinois is a signal that most Republicans in the House want to ride full tilt against Speaker Jim Wright.

However gratifying it may be to the outnumbered Republicans to have the halls of the House chamber ring with war whoops, the choice of a hotspur like Gingrich will not achieve the one thing that would make a real difference in their lives--to regain the majority they lost in the election of 1952. And until they win the 218 seats needed to control the House, they will at best be a burr under the saddle of the Democrats and at worst an impediment to President Bush’s dealings with the majority party in the lower chamber.

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House seats are won by recruiting the best possible candidates. In this critical process, the Republicans have fared badly. The quality of Democratic congressional candidates is simply better than that of Republicans. They are longer on experience and are more likely to have held other public office before seeking a House seat. From the point of view of Republican electoral success, accordingly, the one who occupies the chair of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee is of much greater importance than who is the party whip.

The problem the GOP has in rounding up the good candidates who would deliver control of Congress is that Republicans don’t much like government. Successful Republican business executives would much prefer to remain in the private sector than run for public office because they have so well assimilated Ronald Reagan’s anti-government dogmas. For many of these potential GOP hopefuls, a too-close association with government is akin to contamination by a dread disease. There may be some problems for the Democrats in being the court party, but it certainly does give them control of the court.

But there is more on the downside of Gingrich’s elevation than the false hope that ragging Jim Wright will improve the electoral prospects of the Republicans.

Had Gingrich been chosen the whip during the Reagan Administration, it would have been a state occasion. Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan’s kind of congressman--brash, ideological and confrontational. He does not fit in with George Bush’s strategy for dealing with Congress.

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The President’s approach to Congress is one used in every police precinct in the country--the good cop-bad cop routine. Good cop George Bush dines with congressional Democrats and flatters their leaders. Bad cop Lee Atwater, the GOP national chairman, then springs a surprise on the Democrats by putting them on his hit-list of people targeted for electoral doom. Atwater, however, is a creature of the White House and ultimately controllable by the President. Newt Gingrich’s inertial guidance system, however, cannot be so easily programmed by a range-safety officer at the White House.

While the House is a vastly more partisan place than the Senate, even its more freewheeling and combative style might be overburdened by a increase in the level of sectarian rancor. If that should happen as the result of the new Republican whip pitching too hard into the Democrats, the most conspicuous victim would be the Republican President. At the same time, the future prospects of the Republicans to be the majority party in the House will not be noticeably brighter.


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