REP. BOB LIVINGSTON'S SATURDAY-MORNING surprise resignation threw House Republicans into confusion and chaos. But only for about an hour. Before most Americans even learned that Livingston had withdrawn as speaker-designate, a number of his colleagues had already spread word that they intended to replace him. By the time the House began voting on articles of impeachment, the field of serious candidates for the speakership had shrunk to just two: Christopher Cox of California, and J. Dennis "Denny" Hastert of Illinois.
Of the two, Cox is by far the better known, a conservative intellectual with a Harvard law degree, a long record as an effective legislator, and the enthusiastic support of Republican opinion-shapers like George Will and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Hastert is a low-key former high school wrestling coach who last received widespread publicity this fall when he slipped $ 250,000 into an appropriations bill to study the effects of a certain brand of caffeinated chewing gum. He has the enthusiastic support of the Illinois fastener industry.
But Hastert is almost certain to be the next speaker of the House.
How and why did this happen? For starters, Hastert enjoys the patronage of majority whip Tom Delay, who announced his support for Hastert almost immediately. As DeLay's chief deputy (as well as one of his closest friends) Hastert had a large vote-getting operation at his disposal from the moment he became a candidate. He is almost certain to win the votes of the other 60-odd deputy whips, each of whom in turn will work the phones on his behalf. Hastert, himself an accomplished whip, will be on the phone, too. "The guy counts votes for a living," says a DeLay staffer. "Do you think he would have gotten into this if he didn't think he could win?"
Many of Hastert's peers also believe he can win, and want him to. During the House leadership shakeup last month, Hastert was often mentioned as a replacement for majority leader Dick Armey. As it turned out, Hastert had already promised Armey that he wouldn't mount a challenge for the position. Friends tried to draft him into the race, but Hastert refused to break his word to Armey. It's not clear that Hastert would have beaten Armey, but he received a great deal of credit for not trying.
Hastert also gets credit for patience and for uniting factions within the party. Though he is pro-life, Hastert gets along so well with moderates he is sometimes described as one himself. He's not, insists a DeLay aide. "His image is a lot more moderate than his voting record. He's just a quiet conservative."
Aides to Chris Cox, meanwhile, have been making much the same case for their boss. While Cox is firmly on the ideological right, those who work for him say, he's not obnoxious about it. As an example, one aide points to Cox's stationery. For four years, Cox has run the House Republican Policy Committee. Somewhere along the way, he had the term "Republican" deleted from the committee's letterhead. "When you use the word 'Republican,'" says an aide, proudly displaying a piece of the revised stationery, "you turn off 70 percent of the people you're trying to reach."
Cox, who has a reputation for being arrogant and cold, has already turned off a number of his fellow Republicans in the House. By late Saturday he was working hard to generate momentum for his campaign for speaker. But the Cox virus didn't seem to be spreading. Little more than an hour after the last impeachment vote, Hastert had already won the endorsement of outgoing speaker Newt Gingrich, sewn up about 50 votes, and been described by CNN as the front-runner. More than 30 congressmen manned a phone bank in his office trying to track down Republican members before they left for Christmas. Hastert's staff was predicting the race would be over by Monday.
What sort of speaker will Denny Hastert be? Don't expect brilliant oratory or impromptu history lectures on Larry King Live. Even his friends describe Hastert as a better manager than inspirational leader. "Not a great communicator," says one.
On the other hand, a stable, effective manager is what many in the Republican conference want at this point, someone a bit less exciting than the previous two speakers. "Larry Flynt isn't going to find any skeletons in this guy's closet," says a DeLay aide happily. "In fact, Denny doesn't have any offensive qualities."
Not high praise, perhaps, but about as much as Republicans could ask for under the circumstances.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.