'Middle Ground' Just Got Wider

'Pragmatic' and 'centrist' are new watchwords in capital, as lawmakers respond to a loud message from US voters.

You could call it the revenge of the pragmatists, except that the truly pragmatic don't like revenge. It's too messy. Not prudent.

Label it their return, instead.

The 1998 election and its stunning aftermath may mark a national rise in practical leadership and less confrontational politics, say some experts.

Certainly the ouster of soon-to-be-ex- Speaker Newt Gingrich is a huge shift in that direction. His likely replacement, House Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Livingston, likes to boast that he is a manager, not a revolutionary.

Meanwhile, the number of voters who call themselves "moderate" jumped markedly in the '98 polls. GOP candidates who positioned themselves as centrists, such as Texas Gov. George W. Bush, did far better than their party did as a whole.

All this could mark the end, for now, of the anti-establishment fervor that has roiled the House since the 1994 GOP takeover.

"What the message from the voters of Tuesday last is, is that they want to put issues ... ahead of politics in Congress," conservative Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California said Monday when he announced he would not run for the speakership himself.

Representative Cox's departure from the speakership race has left Representative Livingston a clear run at succeeding Mr. Gingrich. At time of writing he looked all but certain to succeed.

The 6-foot, 4-inch Louisianan is not immune to theatrics. He once whipped out a machete and pounded it on his desk to demonstrate his determination to whack away at budget undergrowth.

But as head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he has operated as one of the nation's top budgeteers. This is not a flamboyant profession, and Livingston specializes in the sort of deals that make numbers add up and bills leave the station on time.

Some GOP firebrands aren't happy with his ascension. Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana calls him an "old-style-pork-caucus" sort of leader.

But many of the same lawmakers who revolted against Gingrich for his perceived lack of an agenda are falling into line behind Livingston. Their reasoning: Livingston showed courage in challenging Gingrich, and legislative firebombs and parliamentary paralysis only go so far, anyway.

It's a turning down of the political volume that some party elders have long awaited.

"Gingrich in many ways was found guilty of a crime he didn't commit, but leadership tends to get blamed when things don't go well," says former GOP Sen. Warren Rudman. "My sense is the party ... will now start to become more pragmatic, if not centrist."

Centrism is in, after all. Candidates who managed to define themselves as the occupier of the reasonable middle often won big last Tuesday, experts point out.

THE poster boys for moderation are the GOP brothers Bush - Texas governor George W. and Florida governor Jeb - who won big with so-called "compassionate conservatism" that marries tax cuts with education reform.

The Bush wins "showed you can be conservative but not mean-spirited," says Bill Phillips, a former Republican National Committee chief of staff, now an official at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The GOP went through a period when a vocal bunch of conservatives overshadowed the image of the party, says Mr. Phillips. Now the "big tent" of GOP inclusiveness may be back, at least at the state level.

"The tent really will come back out ... even though it has some patches on it," says Phillips.

The Democratic party has gone through a similar process in recent years, he notes. President Clinton has been politically successful in marrying fiscal responsibility with education reform in something that might be tagged "prudent liberalism."

And last Tuesday, Democrats that grabbed the center ground did well. Both California Gov.-elect Gray Davis and Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening won in part because, fairly or no, they portrayed their Republican challengers too conservative on such hot-button issues as abortion and civil rights.

The polls told the reason why: Nationwide, the percentage of voters who described themselves as moderate jumped to almost 50 percent. And this key group preferred Democrats by 11 points, according to Los Angeles Times survey numbers.

The edges of the political spectrum aren't going away, however - and the pressures of presidential politics could open intra-party fault lines anew.

Jesse Jackson is pondering another run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Social conservatives who view Gingrich with suspicion and Livingston with anathema could bolt and back a splinter candidate such as Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council.

"There is a chunk of the party that argues for the cause, the principles, and doesn't want those compromised," says Stephen Wirls, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

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