GOPs' best kept secret may be low-key Hastert

Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

There is little doubt that, for Republicans, the single most influential member of Congress in modern times was former Speaker Newt Gingrich. While Gingrich's hard-charging style and various brushes with controversy might not have always endeared him to the press -- or, for that matter, his colleagues -- it would be difficult to deny that his brief tenure as speaker brought one of the swiftest and most sweeping set of changes in the history of American government.

Gingrich's Contract With America may well have been the last major set of coherent and effective policies set forth by the Republicans in Congress. Since Gingrich's departure, individual Republican leaders have teamed with the White House to pass significant legislation, including the Bush tax-relief package and education reform bill. But for the most part, it has been a muted GOP effort, lacking the bravado -- and the votes -- of the early days of Newt. That having been said, there is an "inside story" concerning the current Republican leadership in the House. It is the quiet effectiveness

and popularity of America's "Stealth Speaker," Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. In appearance, Hastert seems to be almost a Newt clone. His large husky frame and salt-with-just-a-little-pepper hair cause some to wonder if Gingrich still roams the rooms of the Speaker's Office. But Hastert's approach and demeanor are entirely different from his predecessor.

Meeting with a handful of individuals, Hastert is quiet and business-like. Unlike Gingrich, who often entered such intimate meetings with a particular new concept or program in mind, Hastert seems more content to sit back and let those visiting with him do the talking.

Not that Hastert doesn't have his own opinions. On Jimmy Carter's proposal that we normalize trade with Cuba, Hastert coolly observes that, political differences notwithstanding, even if such normalization were possible, Cuba has no hard currency with which to buy anything. "If this is one of those situations where we're sending American dollars down there so they can turn around and send them back ... that makes no sense."

In typical fashion, Hastert's low-key response was perhaps the most logical answer to have been put forth on the issue. And this low-key, reasoned and no-nonsense approach to his duties has made Hastert a relatively well-liked leader. While some extremists on the GOP side of the House still grumble about the degree of muffled moderation the speaker employs in his approach to issues, his interpersonal relationship with most members, even many Democrats, is extremely strong.

The question for Republicans is whether the flamboyant and take-no-prisoners style of Gingrich simply alienated people without accomplishing anything, or whether it represented the only time in recent years that Republicans seemed to have a popular, coherent, "do something" agenda.

Despite his faults -- and all politicians have them -- Newt Gingrich was a brilliant man capable of "thinking outside of the box" and then converting these creative concepts into legislative success. Hastert seems far less likely to invent the next conservative revolution, or for that matter, even an inventive set of legislative proposals.

But perhaps that's not what the Republicans need.

It seems that as we head into the heart of the election year, Republicans would do well to introduce the down-to-earth style of this virtually unknown leader to the American people. His is the voice of steady reason and candid "Midwestern values."

President Bush cannot alone carry the weight of keeping a Republican majority in the House. And the administration has too few "warm and fuzzy" types to serve as his surrogates. The political gurus who generally create mediocre national ads for the Republican Party might consider letting America in on the secret of this bright, levelheaded and likeable House leader.

No, Hastert is no Newt Gingrich. And Gingrich, who may now seem a forgotten piece of history, will remain the most effective GOP legislator of our time. But walking softly and carrying a "big gavel" can also be effective.

If only someone will notice.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at

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