The Governors Try To Take Charge

Can they make the GOP the party of pragmatism before 2000?

To understand just how shaken Republicans are after their Nov. 3 humbling at the polls, listen to Clark Reed, former chairman of the Mississippi GOP. "I'm a right-winger," he says softly. "But it's time for all these [social] conservatives to be quiet, or we'll never elect a President again."

Coming from the patriarch of modern Southern conservatism, it's a telling comment. And Reed is hardly the only party elder voicing such views. With a swiftness that has stunned the GOP faithful, Republican power brokers are concluding that it's time for a new image and a more engaging message. The buzzword is pragmatism--at least the kind practiced by the GOP's popular crop of statehouse officials. The consensus at a Nov. 17-21 conclave of GOP governors and grass-roots leaders in New Orleans: It's time to mute the tough social conservatism and partisanship that have left many Capitol Hill Republicans out of synch with swing voters. Failure, many pols fear, could cost the party both its congressional majority and the White House in 2000.

For the GOP's 31 governors, the road ahead is clear: The door needs to be opened wider to minorities and working women. And such popular issues as schools, tax cuts, and economic development should top the agenda. Says Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge: "We need to become the face of the Republican Party."

LOWER KEY. Republicans have spent years in unrequited yearning for a bold conservative to be the heir to Ronald Reagan. Now, by downplaying polarizing national issues such as curbs on abortion and immigration, they seem to be searching for a low-keyed problem-solver who can build bipartisan coalitions--a sentiment that helps explain the Presidential boomlet of Texas Governor George W. Bush.

"The age of soaring rhetoric and grand vision is over," says Rich Galen, executive director of GOPAC, a conservative fund-raising group allied with outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "What replaces it is competency--get the roads fixed, cut taxes, get government more efficient. What we need is a national mayor or governor."

Besides a shift in emphasis from macro to micro solutions, Republican strategists say the GOP must broaden its base. "The message is tolerance," says Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland. "We're against gays, women's rights, affirmative action, immigration, unions, teachers. Until we stop this, we're never going to win."

In California, social conservatives riled minorities by battling affirmative action, bilingual education, and health benefits for immigrants. With the Hispanic population growing rapidly in California, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Florida, GOP media consultant Mike Murphy warns that Republicans face "a looming crisis" in the Electoral College. Unless it is defused, he says, "the big states are going to be unattainable in 20 years."

The new model may be Bush, who courted Hispanic votes and won broad support among minorities by pledging an aggressive program to improve reading skills. Brother Jeb also reached out and won the governorship of Florida. Unlike Washington hard-liners, George W. opposes both affirmative-action limits and strict English-only dictates. "One cannot lead without uniting," Bush told BUSINESS WEEK. "The politics of division have been divisive."

IGNORED. Governors such as Bush hope the election will jolt party leaders into changing course. But will they? After the '94 GOP sweep, Hill Republicans promised to give the govs a key policymaking role. "Instead, they treated us like we were a special interest," says Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson. "We spent years in the wilderness."

Washington Republicans are paying more attention now. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has invited the governors to a Dec. 4 strategy session. And there is talk about making the governors the sales force for party initiatives. But GOP topsiders such as Texans Richard K. Armey, the House Majority Leader, and Tom DeLay, the Majority Whip, don't have much of a taste for Bush-style deal-cutting. They prefer partisan shootouts.

Besides, the Religious Right is skeptical of a shift toward accommodation. Family Research Council President Gary L. Bauer warns that a retreat from social issues will cost Republicans crucial support in the 2000 elections. Says a key associate: "You could have rebellion in the ranks."

What's notable about the current soul-searching is just how isolated Bauer and his ilk are from the repositioning drive. Right now, many Republicans are so worried about a return to minority status that they're ready to get in line, roll up their sleeves, close their eyes--and get a big injection of pragmatism.