Passing the torch

Posted: Nov 25, 2003 12:00 AM

There are long-term implications to President Bush's Medicare drug benefits proposal that likely won't surface until the 2004 elections have passed. One of those eventualities may be the continuance of a Republican tradition: the emergence of a new generation of leaders who believe their party elders are too moderate.

I couldn't help but chuckle after reading that just such a label is being placed on the man whose campaigns I chaired through his first years in Congress, Newt Gingrich. Of late, he has gone to the mat for the White House as he tries to convince a group of concerned conservative Republicans that the drug benefits bill isn't fiscally irresponsible. I laughed because I remember when Newt had the same misgivings about certain GOP leaders that others now have about him.

In the mid 1970s, Gingrich ran for Congress in the aftermath of the Nixon/Watergate debacle. It wasn't uncommon for this rising Republican star to challenge the judgment of the Gerald Ford administration and other GOP leaders for being too moderate or just plain out of touch. Years later, as House minority whip, Gingrich wouldn't hesitate to voice concern over the policies of then-President George H.W. Bush. This outspokenness created no surplus of White House goodwill for Gingrich.

But the Republican political wheel turns, and yesterday's foe becomes today's ally. So it has for Gingrich and the new President Bush. It's time for the next generation of "new conservatives" to start bemoaning what they will see as the decline of the "true" Republican Party.

Will they be right? Narrowly speaking, probably they will. But in a broader sense, they won't. There is little question that the White House's Medicare proposal looks like a huge expansion of an entitlement that many conservatives believe shouldn't exist in the first place. Plenty of younger voters are wondering where the bill's supporters plan to find the hundreds of billions of dollars eventually needed to pay for the prescription-drug benefits. These youngsters fear they will end up bankrolling much of it.

What they forget is that a key component of the bill, the part that allows private companies to provide some Medicaid coverage through individual accounts, was part of Gingrich's Contract With America in 1994. It's also important to note that this Republican bill was drafted for full implantation more than two years ahead -- enough time for tweaks and changes.

Gingrich's apparent strategy in supporting the current legislation is to help Republicans win over seniors, who are, according to many polls, largely wary of GOP candidates. Gingrich must agree with party leaders that hanging on to the White House and the Congress is far more important than adhering to some rigid form of conservative dogma. Is this selling out? No, it's just selling -- an important job at which Republicans don't always excel.

Still, for all their good intentions, there inevitably will come a day when a new set of leaders will roll onto the scene. Looking to change the world and make a name for themselves, they will total the cost of war in Iraq, Medicare expansion, the proposed new energy bill and whatever additional initiatives the GOP can cook up, and they will cry foul. It won't happen in 2004. Too many party power brokers know the cost of rocking the boat in an election year will be too high. But eventually, new and loud voices will rail about the day when Congress went on a mad spending spree that forced future leaders to make uncomfortable decisions about how much -- not when, but how much -- to raise taxes.

Will that day be a sad one for the Republican Party? Not necessarily. Today's GOP is smart enough to address issues and pass bills that appeal to voters the party may have lost in the past. But ultimately, the party will reinvent itself again, perhaps by trawling for young voters who will be grousing about taxes, entitlements and federal debt. This ebb and flow of policies and politics is inevitable.

As one who enjoys watching the game of politics, I hope I can be there to witness this next turn of events within the Republican ranks: the moment when someone calls Newt Gingrich a liberal. That's when I'll give Newt an affectionate nudge and ask, "Does that remind you of anyone?"