Life of the party?

No matter who succeeds Bob Livingston, Whip Tom Delay is the new Republican leader as the GOP continues to sink in the polls.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Once again, on Saturday morning, the Republican-led feeding frenzy on Capital Hill consumed not President Clinton, but one of their own. Speaker-designate Bob Livingston, R-La., shocked the House and the nation by announcing he will not serve as speaker of the House, and like his recently toppled predecessor, Newt Gingrich, will resign his seat in the House.

Livingston's announcement rocketed through the ranks of official Washington, throwing the White House off-balance and turning the GOP's day of victory into a sort of conservative Gotterdammerung. There's no clear word on why Livingston made his decision, which he announced dramatically on the House floor. But some conservatives had begun to grumble that a man who'd confessed to adultery wasn't a fit leader for the party.

"I think the speaker-elect's revelations were viewed with some consternation," said one GOP campaign consultant. "On the one hand, there was a very favorable contrast with Clinton, in his contrition. But people were troubled that the public would not understand the distinction, and that might make the Republican case harder to make."

At the outset of the House's proceedings Saturday morning, some in the White House had feared a sudden surge of momentum for the president to resign his office rather than fight it out in a trial in the Senate. But as daylight waned in the capital, the president stood on the White House lawn flanked by his wife, Vice President Al Gore and dozens of House Democrats and vowed to continue his presidency "until the very last hour of the very last day of my term." Meanwhile, the Republicans once again faced the daunting task of choosing a new leader who can settle the turmoil in the House and rescue the party from what the latest New York Times poll showed were its steadily declining fortunes with the American people.

As the foregone conclusion of an impeachment vote temporarily shifted into the background, the Republican Party was again thrown into confusion and forced to confront its deep-seated ideological divisions as it sought to find yet another candidate to become House speaker. But as the day wore on, it also became clear that whoever takes the post, the real result of Livingston's resignation will be increasing power for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the hard-liner who is blamed or credited with helping bring the president's impeachment back from the dead after last month's election.

By mid-day a handful of names were being discussed in the halls of the House, and many had been mentioned for leadership positions just last month. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, who ran unsuccessfully for majority leader last month, appeared unlikely to run for the top job, but Steve Largent, the conservative Oklahoman who came in second to Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas in that vote, seemed poised to run. As of late in the afternoon, Largent released a statement saying that he was "keeping an open mind" and that he was "getting a lot of encouragement to run." Christopher Cox of California has also stated his interest in the job.

But the remaining powerhouses in the Republican caucus have mobilized behind Rep. Denny Hastert of Illinois. Desperate to make clear to its members and to the public that someone is in charge of the GOP House caucus, Gingrich and DeLay quickly mobilized their troops to assure Hastert's succession to the leadership.

Hastert is a conservative with 100-percent ratings from the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition, but he is also a consensus builder who has warm relations with GOP moderates, as well as with Gingrich and DeLay. Some on the Hill, however, raised questions about whether Hastert, who is not widely known even in Washington, was the moving force behind his own candidacy. The departure of Livingston had come so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that Hastert's candidacy was seen as the work of his powerful friends. One House GOP aide told Salon, "It's really the power structure putting him forward. It's a consensus day in the capital."

Also at issue in the capital on Saturday afternoon was the important question of the power of DeLay. Through persistent effort and fierce whipping, DeLay managed over recent weeks to turn impeachment, which had seemed dead, into the reality it is today. Given that feat, DeLay had already become the de facto leader of the House Republicans, at least during the interregnum between the speakerships of Gingrich and Livingston. But with Livingston stepping down, there is real doubt whether any new speaker can be the real leader of the House as long as DeLay holds such power.

With all his recent successes, his strong support within Christian conservative circles, his fund-raising prowess and the vacuum within the GOP leadership, some believe that a new speaker will be a speaker only in name, with DeLay as the power behind the throne. When asked whether such a problem would face the next speaker, one GOP House aide told Salon, "Sure, absolutely it's a problem."

A prominent Republican campaign consultant questioned whether "DeLay's shadow speakership may inhibit others from taking the job. Is a new speaker candidate going to want to take all the blame without all the credit," he asked, "or get all the blame without any of the power?"

Taken together, the sudden turmoil in the Republican caucus once again highlights the deep divisions and toxic atmosphere plaguing the party. Just six weeks ago, after a disappointing election showing, Republicans were saying that they would strive to focus on bread-and-butter issues and move beyond what had seemed a partisan obsession with investigating the president.

But Saturday's impeachment and Livingston's sudden departure again shine a light on the raucous instability of today's Republican Party, and the underlying strength of the party's die-hard conservative wing. Many in the House GOP are relishing their success, in finally taking a major step toward driving the president from office. But Republicans who care deeply about the party's continued viability in national elections have reason to be concerned that the oft-stated effort to reshape the party around "compassionate conservatism" may turn out to be harder than it looks.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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