Frame Game


The House coup is taking the GOP in the wrong direction.

Faster than you can say “Republican revolution,” Newt Gingrich has surrendered his job as speaker of the House, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., has wrapped up the contest to replace him. The media has already reached consensus on Livingston: He represents “moderation,” as opposed to Gingrich’s conservatism, and “management,” as opposed to Gingrich’s emphasis on ideology. “Support for Livingston Represents Move Toward Pragmatism,” says Monday’s New York Times front page.

Other House leadership positions are up for grabs, too, and the candidates for these jobs have joined Livingston and his enemies in the ideology-pragmatism debate. Gingrich was “a revolutionary,” Livingston argued Sunday on ABC’s This Week; “I am a manager.” But once again, the Republicans and the media are failing to grasp the message of the 1998 elections. It’s not about ideology. It’s not about competence. It’s about self-absorption.

The performance of Livingston and two other leadership candidates on This Week illustrates how the House coup, far from solving the GOP’s problems, is moving Republicans in the wrong direction. Instead of confronting the public’s material concerns, they’re engrossed in blaming each other and promoting themselves. Speaking for the new “management” school, Livingston advertised himself as a speaker who would “provide the legislative machinery” to implement legislation. When asked about his role as appropriations chairman in this year’s sloppily assembled half-trillion dollar budget bill, he replied that he had said at the time, “This is ugly, but we have to pass it and get out of here and go get re-elected.” When asked about the GOP’s pork-laden $217 billion highway bill, he said opponents of the bill were right and that he “was opposed in the preliminary” votes but “ended up voting for the final bill,” since “a lot of people are going to have highways because of that bill and a lot of people are going to have jobs because of that bill.” When asked whether House Republicans had mishandled the Lewinsky investigation, Livingston answered, “I don’t know. I personally was trying to get my appropriations bills out … and I wasn’t paying that much attention to what was going on.” As for the election results, he blamed conservative voters who “stayed home from the polls because they’re sulking because they didn’t get everything they wanted.”

Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., who ostensibly represents the party’s conservative wing, followed Livingston on the show. His principal diagnosis of the election was that his colleagues hadn’t heeded his wisdom about appealing to ethnic minorities. “I feel like I’ve been beating my head on the wall for the last four years and saying that we’ve got to reach out,” he lamented. Rather than address the moral implications of this oversight, Watts went on to explain how Republicans, by electing him, could capitalize politically on new audiences. “I haven’t just talked about this outreach thing, I’ve done it,” he asserted. “I’ve executed the game plan.”

Finally, speaking for the incumbents, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, explained why he should be re-elected as chairman of the House Republican Conference. Boehner agreed that the leadership needed to be changed. “We have got to manage the House in a much different way,” he said. “There were no clear lines of responsibility in the leadership. No clear lines of accountability.” But when asked about his own responsibility for the party’s failure, he replied, “Most members of the conference really believe that with Newt’s decision to leave, that’s enough change–that the problems, in terms of managing the House, were mostly in the speaker’s office.” When pressed as to whether he had made any mistakes, Boehner bravely allowed, “I don’t think it is any secret to anyone that the speaker and I had our share of disagreements over the last four years about how we operated.” When asked about the GOP’s failure to pass budget bills by June 30, as required by law, he replied, “No one has paid attention to the Budget Act since it was enacted.” And summing up his rationale for re-election, he emphasized “the services that I’ve provided with my staff to the members.”

The conventional media analysis of the GOP leadership struggle is that Watts, fellow Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Largent, and other conservatives are taking on Livingston, Boehner, and the “pragmatists.” And the media’s implicit conclusion is that the pragmatists would turn the GOP toward the mandate for moderation that was delivered in the elections. But Gingrich’s description of the House coup–“cannibalism”–is more accurate. The candidates for the Republican leadership are conveying a preoccupation not with solving the nation’s problems but with protecting themselves individually and devouring each other. And if there’s one thing the electorate seems to disdain more than the violence of the cannibals, it’s the narcissism of their palates.

Recent “Frame Games”

The C Word“: The 1998 election didn’t kill conservatism. The postelection analysis did. (posted Friday, Nov. 6, 1998)

Election Night Excuses“: William Saletan analyzes 20 classic postelection spins. (posted Monday, Nov. 2, 1998)