THE RACE TO REPLACE NEWT
Feb 15, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 21 • By TUCKER CARLSON
JOHNNY ISAKSON REMEMBERS the Republican revolution like it was four years ago. Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, and then . . . What happened next? Isakson, a longtime state senator from Georgia's Sixth District who will almost certainly replace Gingrich in Congress, seems as good a person as any to ask. He is clearly uncomfortable with the question. Isakson surveys the suburban Atlanta traffic through the windshield of his Chevy truck, fiddles with the air conditioning knobs on the dashboard. "What really carried the day in '94 was the Contract With America," he says. "After that there was a loss of focus." In retrospect, Isakson says, Republicans really "should have danced with the one that brung them." The Contract With America, meanwhile, could have used "a second chapter."
Interesting ideas, except, as it turns out, they're not ideas. Pressed to explain what he means, Isakson offers no hint of what the Contract's next chapter might have contained, or of who, specifically, the Republicans should have danced with. Instead, he trails off into silence. "Maybe," he says, finally, "there should have been a little bit more emphasis on the governing side."
If Isakson seems hazy on what became of the fire-breathing 104th Congress, it may be because he can hardly imagine that such a Congress once existed. The belligerence, the grandiose promises, and ideological fervor of the young Republican majority -- it all seems so early '90s, so partisan. Johnny Isakson, by contrast, is very much a Republican of the new millennium, a self-described "compassionate conservative" for whom bipartisan compromise and poll-tested buzzwords are instinctive. Isakson would have been out of step as a freshman in the 104th Congress. He's likely to be a hit in the 106th.
Newt Gingrich himself appears to think so. Days after announcing his plans to retire, Gingrich publicly threw his support behind Isakson. A number of well-known Georgia political figures followed suit, including retired Democratic governor Zell Miller and former Gingrich opponent Michael Coles. By the time the luminaries finished endorsing him, the only Democrat who bothered to enter the race against Isakson was Gary "Bats" Pelphrey, a perennial candidate who is widely believed to merit his nickname. From the beginning, Isakson has looked like the inevitable winner. Still, he has taken no chances. An affluent real estate executive, Isakson has hired an expensive pollster and media consultants from Washington, and raised more than $ 1 million. By early February, Isakson's campaign was spending $ 120,000 a week on television advertising alone.
While far ahead of its opponents in the polls, the campaign is probably wise to keep spending. Isakson has unusually energetic enemies, beginning with the district's politically active anti-abortion groups. During the 1996 Senate primary, Isakson received a great deal of publicity for running a commercial trumpeting his pro-choice views. In the spot, which featured his wife and teenage daughter, Isakson accused the other Republicans in the race of seeking "to make criminals of women and their doctors" by banning abortion. While the ad was popular with some suburban women (reportedly including Gingrich's wife, Marianne), it enraged many evangelicals. It also contributed to Isakson's reputation as a politician willing to do anything to get elected. "He used his daughter as a prop to promote abortion," says Tom Perdue, who managed the campaign of Isakson's main opponent in the primary, Guy Millner. "Who would do that to their child?"
And the ad, says Perdue, is the least of Isakson's sins. Perdue, easily the state's most seasoned and powerful political consultant, has known Isakson for more than 20 years. His verdict: "Johnny is a total, absolute phony, an utter hypocrite," "a thoroughly cowardly human being" who "has done more to hurt the Republican party in Georgia than any other person. You can't trust him. He is a liar. His word is worthless." For the last four years, Perdue says, Isakson "has been doing anything to hold high office. Maybe he will get it this time. But for anybody who cares about the future of this country, it's a shame."
Isakson responds to attacks from evangelicals by pointing to his long record as a Sunday school teacher. "I'm a very religious guy," he says heatedly. "I believe in my church, the Methodist Church." Isakson may swing fellow Methodists with this defense, but many conservatives in the district remain convinced that his candidacy represents a sellout of the Republican party from within. For these voters, Christina Jeffrey is the obvious choice.
Jeffrey, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, is also running for the Sixth District seat, and like Isakson, she has personal ties to Gingrich. Indeed, Jeffrey was the first person Gingrich hired as the newly Republican Congress convened in 1995. For about a week, Jeffrey was the official House historian, until a White House staffer checked the clip files and discovered that she had once been accused of making anti-Semitic comments. Jeffrey defended herself by arguing -- persuasively, virtually everyone involved later agreed -- that her comments had been meant as a parody of liberal relativism, and were being grotesquely misread. [See: "The Vindication of Christina Jeffrey," THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Dec. 18, 1995.] Gingrich fired her anyway.
Jeffrey returned to her job at Kennesaw State, minus about $ 35,000 in moving costs and lost income. Months later, she sued Gingrich and several other members of Congress for more than $ 20 million, on grounds they had defamed her. (The suit is still pending, says Jeffrey, "though I don't know exactly where it is.") She also began something of a crusade against Gingrich, at one point publishing a newsletter called The Jeffrey Report that attacked the speaker for "moving left" and neglecting core conservative values.
Jeffrey's criticisms of Gingrich appear sincere enough, and she applies most of them to Isakson as well. Jeffrey's base of supporters consists mostly of committed social conservatives already active in politics: pro-lifers, gun owners, home schoolers. (Jeffrey herself teaches the youngest of her five children at home.) The Sixth District is famously conservative -- Cobb County's main artery is named the Larry McDonald Memorial Highway, after the late chairman of the John Birch Society who represented the area in Congress -- and twenty years ago such a coalition might have been enough to win an election. But the district is changing rapidly, becoming much more affluent and better educated -- "more like Winnetka every day," in the words of Jeffrey's husband, Robert. The farmers and white refugees from Atlanta who once made up the bulk of district-six voters cared about Christina Jeffrey's issues. Yuppies don't.
In spite of the odds, the Jeffrey campaign has received some national attention. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas recently made an appearance on Jeffrey's behalf. Former presidential candidate Alan Keyes is scheduled to arrive this week for a much-anticipated "pro-life rally and ice cream social." But the campaign still has very little money. With two weeks remaining until the election, Jeffrey had yet to run even a single radio ad. Barring a natural catastrophe on Election Day that keeps all but pro-lifers home, she is unlikely to win.
Which leaves Johnny Isakson, compassionate conservative, as heir to Newt Gingrich's seat in Congress. Despite what his critics charge, Isakson is not a liberal. He is a skilled political operator, well-informed about every issue that could possibly affect the state of Georgia, someone who naturally places an emphasis on, as he puts it, the governing side. If Isakson tends to answer questions without reference to his own beliefs -- ask him if he favors term limits, for example, and he'll explain that as a state legislator, he voted to allow the public to vote on term limits -- at least he has most of the Republican themes down. He has plenty of hostile things to say about taxes.
And he has impressive self-control. Consider his personal habits. Johnny Isakson looks like a smoker. He has the cough, the teeth, the leathery, W. H. Auden face. An aide confirms that Isakson does indeed smoke -- "His grandfather was a tobacco farmer," the aide explains -- but apart from his appearance, you'd never know it. A key feature of compassionate conservatism is not smoking in public, and Isakson pulls it off well.
Last week, Isakson made it through an entire fund-raising lunch with local developers, during which he spoke eloquently and at length about transportation policy (Should a monorail through Cobb County run in the center of the highway or beside it?), the consequences of saltwater long-line fishing, and the minutiae of literacy testing in state elementary schools, without having a cigarette. From the lunch, Isakson went directly to an interview with a reporter. Still no cigarette.
After about 20 minutes, however, the candidate began to grow irritable. By the time the conversation turned to impeachment, Isakson was outright grouchy. Asked if the president should be convicted, Isakson refused to answer. "That's the Senate's decision," he replied, "and I know they're dealing with it." Sure, but everybody has an opinion. What's yours? "I'm not running for the Senate," he said. Yes, but aren't you planning to challenge Sen. Cleland in 2002? Isakson ignored the question completely. "Let me give you directions to the airport," he said.
In the Republican party of the next millennium, Johnny Isakson is the kind of politician who could go places. With the help of the nicotine patch, he might even become a senator.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.