Commentary: Now, You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Republican Smile

Louisiana's Robert L. Livingston is not your natural-born smiler. The head of the House Appropriations Committee is part bean-counter, part hothead who gets his kicks--literally--at karate class. So why is Livingston suddenly popping up on television talk shows, grinning as he tells viewers his Mom told him to stop having tantrums on the House floor?

Like GOP pols everywhere, the man most likely to succeed Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House has contracted acute smile-itis. Convinced that voters turned against GOP candidates because they came off as Newtian nabobs of negativism, Republicans want a makeover. Dour warnings of cultural rot are out. So are vicious public feuds. Conservatism with a smiling face--the formula that Ronald Reagan perfected--is in. This year's role models are the beaming Bush Boys (Texas Governor George W. and Florida's Jeb), who ran highly successful, inclusive campaigns.

Still, it's not clear that smiley Republicanism will cure what ails the party. Many of the GOP's core policies--from curbing abortion to opposing HMO patient protections--do nothing to expand the Republican base. But the party's right-wingers can't abandon explosive social issues for fear of alienating the religious right.

LONE STAR. There is a way out, though--if Republican leaders on the Hill will take it. They can adopt the winning strategies of Republican politicians in the states. While the national GOP focused on bashing Bill Clinton and banning late-term abortions, Republican governors pursued a far more pragmatic--and popular--course.

In Texas, Bush's "compassionate conservatism" made major inroads with minority voters. While Newt & Co. fought against Clinton's crusade for school funds, Bush made fixing his state's education system one of his top priorities. The governor "started with the concession that we need more money," says his media guru, Karl Rove. "But he talked about local control, higher standards, and more competition to lay out a road map for a better tomorrow. That's a positive vision, not a wedge."

"LOSING HAND." Other governors won favor by coming off as efficiency experts rather than cultural warriors. Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson reformed the welfare system. Michigan's John Engler overhauled a creaky state tax code. And New Jersey's Christie Whitman slashed that state's bureaucracy to pay for tax cuts. "We can be led by Gingrich and [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott with 30% approval ratings," says Republican National Committee member Ron Kaufman, "or by governors with ratings in the 60% range. We've got to choose."

While the GOP mulls that choice, Republicans in Congress are reacting by putting on a happy face. For some party pros, that's a start. "As you smile, you get into a sunny groove," muses Republican Party theorist James P. Pinkerton. "Ultimately, this will lead us from social issues, and we'll drop a losing hand."

Maybe. However, party leaders will have to do more than that. To regain a political center currently occupied by Bill Clinton, they must revamp both their message and their fire-and-brimstone platform. They won't find much to chuckle about while they're doing it.

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