The rap on Speaker Dennis Hastert is that he's not Newt Gingrich. For conservatives, that's a shame. For moderates, that's just fine. For those who like a politician to be something he is not, they have Bill Clinton. A visit with the Speaker last week reveals a kind of principled pragmatism. It is founded on Republican core beliefs, but tempered with the realization that, given a six-seat majority with no philosophical unity on which to construct a voting bloc, there is a limit on what he and his majority can do without reinforcements. "We'll have a tax cut bill on the floor of the House by the 26th of July. We'll have a tax cut bill out of the Senate Finance Committee by the 26th of July. I think that's what the people want. I don't know what the formula is, but we'll be looking at the marriage penalty and inheritance and death taxes which hurt small business and farmers." Mr. Hastert suspects the reason for the angst among his critics is the difficulty in getting the Republican message through post-Monica, post-impeachment, and now post-Kosovo Washington. About criticism of his leadership, the former wrestling coach and teacher of the Constitution says, "The only way to win is to bring people together. Whether you're a moderate or conservative, our margin is too small not to pull together to get things done. We don't have the luxury to be fractionalized so that 15 or 20 people can go off at their leisure and do their own thing. But in order for us to add to our majority, the people are going to have to see that this Congress and the Republicans are doing good for the country. It's to the advantage of our adversaries not to let us do anything. Their game plan will divide us, drive wedges, slow us down. They'll pick off six people whenever they can." The Speaker offered new details about his dealings with Hillary Rodham Clinton which might be of interest should she decide to run for the Senate from New York. Six years ago, Mrs. Clinton and a staff that met in secret were attempting to nationalize health care. "In June 1993, we had a dinner," Hastert recalls. "It was Mrs. Clinton, Rep. John Kasich, four or five other people, and me. I was the last one to ask a question. I said, 'Mrs. Clinton, have you thought about medical savings accounts (MSAs)?' She said, 'They won't work.' I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'Well, for two reasons. People are greedy. They'll want to take that money and won't get the services for their family-the screenings, preventive care.'" Mr. Hastert says he told Mrs. Clinton that part of it is an educational process to inform people that if they do certain things they'll be healthier. He recalls her saying, "No, no. The government will tell them when to get the screenings, when to get the preventive care. That's how we're going to do it in my health care plan." Mr. Hastert says he thought to himself, "That's dictatorial." Asking her the second reason for her doubts about MSAs, he says she responded, "All that money goes to the private sector and the federal government will spend that money better than the private sector will." For Mr. Hastert, this crystallized the difference between the parties. Democrats believe government can spend people's money better than the people who earn it. Republicans think "the individual is at the center of the decisionmaking process and we are accountable for our decisions, not government." Mr. Hastert plans to take that message national and ask for additional Republican troops. To do what? To do more of what he promises his limited majority has planned for the current session. Many conservatives confuse loudness with leadership and personality with policy, whether one wins or not. Speaker Hastert says he knows the House and how Democrats play the game. He's betting that not making himself a target and staying focused on what is doable will be enough to widen the GOP majority next year. We'll know in 16 months.
-© 1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate