Firebrand Freshmen Tone Down Message
As election approaches, GOP class softens its stance
WASHINGTON — ALMOST as soon as the freshman Republicans arrived in Washington last year they were labeled extremists, not only by the Democrats, but even by some senior members of their own party, who considered them anything but team players. Still, the freshmen seemed to take pride in being considered modern Visigoths. They wore buttons that said "I'm a FRESHMAN ... and proud of it!"
But now it seems the Class of '94 is undergoing an attitude adjustment.
Despite the pronouncements shortly after they arrived in Washington that they didn't care about their own reelections - they proclaimed they were focusing solely on balancing the budget and cutting government - it seems the freshmen do care very much about reelection. Their "no compromises" position didn't seem to play well with many voters, so many freshmen are presenting a less-strident image.
"[We need] a kinder, gentler face and to accept reality," says Rep. Mark Foley of Florida.
Offers Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas: "We scared too many people last year talking with such revolutionary fervor. I think we showed more guts than brains at times," Mr. Brownback admits.
Some pundits see the evolution as part of the natural maturation process, a political tempering produced when theory meets experience.
Others see it as a case of election jitters or simply a desire to do whatever it takes to get re-elected so they can finish the job they started.
In any case, clearly the government shutdown wounded the Republicans. It divided the freshmen between those who wanted to hang tough and the more moderate members, who saw the public-relations downside to what was happening.
Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida, one of the most outspoken members of the class, was disappointed in the way the leadership handled the budget negotiations. "We made a commitment last fall to stare down the president, and we blinked," he says. "We turned over the agenda to the president and that's not why we got sent up here ... we were sent here to force the president to balance the budget."
Many of the freshmen see the government shutdown as their Waterloo. They admit they underestimated the president's willingness to stand firm and the public discontent that followed.
Representative Scarborough's failure to win his bid for class president in February is seen as a turning point in how the freshmen portray themselves in the wake of the budget negotiations. Scarborough was defeated by Rep. George Radanovich, a pleasant, soft-spoken conservative from northern California.
Representative Radanovich, a low-key lawmaker compared with many in his class, says his strategy in 1995 was to "keep my eyes and ears open and keep my mouth shut."
Some freshmen say Scarborough lost the race for class president because he was considered too harsh. Scarborough admits Radanovich is probably perceived as less threatening.
And Radanovich's seat looks secure. He says he essentially took care of his reelection last year by going home every weekend, holding town meetings, and raising $450,000. And competition for his seat is not expected to be stiff.
But that's not the case for every freshman. Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania is waging a tough reelection battle. Representative English won with 49 percent of the vote in a largely industrial, working-class district that not only voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 but for Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Although English has been a reliable vote for the GOP leadership, as the election gets closer, he has distanced himself from House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He recently announced his support for an increase in minimum wage.
While some freshmen have urged Mr. Gingrich to keep a lower public profile, others welcome the representative from Georgia's support. This year, Gingrich has raised more than a million dollars for freshmen. Last week, Gingrich was in Representative Foley's West Palm Beach district where about 70 people paid $1,000 to shake his hand and have their picture taken with him. Another 700 paid several hundred dollars each for breakfast and to hear Gingrich speak. The event netted Foley $170,000.
The freshmen say the coming election will be a referendum on their class, whether people think they've gone too far or not far enough. "There's no question; if Bill Clinton is returned there's a check, we're checkmated," Foley says.
With characteristic freshman modesty, Rick White of Washington says: "The election in November is Bill Clinton against the freshman class. This is going to be an election where the congressional races have coattails for the presidency, instead of the other way around."