GOP Unsure of Media Messenger

Posted January 15, 2003 at 6:44pm

Former Speaker Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) held daily press briefings. When Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) took the helm, he opened himself up to the media for weekly dugouts before abruptly aborting the practice.

The job was then punted to then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who had a rough start but eventually grew comfortable enough to meet with reporters every Tuesday for briefings. He mixed the Republican message with colorful stories about fishing and country music every week before leaving office.

At one point before saying his final goodbyes, Armey even made a compact disc of his favorite country music, which he handed out at one of his last pen-and-pad briefings.

Needless to say, Capitol Hill scribes are not expecting any gifts this year from the man who will succeed Armey in the No. 2 House GOP leadership job, or Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who holds briefings sporadically.

When the House returns to work at the end of the month, few expect new Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who openly disdains the media and has kept reporters at arm’s-length for much of his tenure in the GOP leadership, to avail himself to the press to anywhere near the same degree Armey did.

As soon as DeLay announced his campaign for the No. 2 post more than a year ago, the questions started coming: Who will be the face of the House Republicans with DeLay moving up the leadership ladder, and how would he handle the communications role of the new job? Democrats also began relishing the thought of DeLay being forced to face the media he had sparred with throughout his career.

And if DeLay does not answer the call, will Hastert — whose low-key style played a critical role in catapulting him to the Speakership — suddenly welcome the spotlight?

Two months after Republican leaders were voted into place, other members of the leadership team and senior aides to Hastert and DeLay insist nothing has been decided about who will handle the pen and pad briefing and how often it will be.

But it’s clear that incoming GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), who ranks No. 4 on the leadership ladder, will be the lead communicator for House Republicans.

“She’s the person in charge,” said Hastert spokesman John Feehery. “There’s a lot of faces and voices, but she’s the top one and there always will be plenty of voices.”

Feehery readily admitted that Gingrich “didn’t have a good track record” handling his press briefings. But he also noted that Foley, and Gingrich, for that matter, had a certain political interest in holding daily press conferences: They both had the top job in the House at a time when the president from an opposite party occupied the White House.

“We’re not throwing zingers at our president, but when there’s a need to go out against the Democrats, we’ll do that,” Feehery said.

Feehery explained that different Speakers have different styles, and his boss has chosen not to court the limelight. But Feehery stressed that the Speaker’s office works hard to ensure reporters’ needs are met.

“The Speaker has no problem with the press,” he said. “His problem is time management. His first priority is listening to Members rather than dealing with the press. And I think this Speaker has done a better job at managing the House [than his predecessors].”

Republican leadership aides said DeLay and Pryce are still trying to hash out a plan that would allow the powerful Texan the chance to declare a truce with reporters and answer their questions in an open, free-flowing forum.

DeLay spokesman Stuart Roy insists DeLay will have briefings and that they will be “regular and frequent.” Exactly how often, he said, is still up for discussion. Leaders plan to make a decision about how to approach the sensitive matter at their retreat in early February, if not before.

But do not expect DeLay to develop a soft spot for the press overnight, if ever. Roy admits that his boss has “no desire to be the face and voice of the Republican party.”

DeLay has been a player in national politics long enough to know the press is unpredictable and the hard-edged Texan does not enjoy free-wheeling situations he cannot control. DeLay built his career and vaunted whip operation on behind-the-scenes negotiations and aggressive, long-term strategic thinking.

One Democratic leadership aide said she thought the problem was one of substance rather than style.

“If I were their press secretary, I wouldn’t want him out there either. His policies are so extreme … it’s not acceptable by the general public. You wouldn’t want him out there for weekly scrutiny,” the aide said.

Of course, DeLay will make sure that Democratic attacks do not go unanswered.

“We’re certainly not going to leave the door open and let the Democrats define things,” Roy said. “We’re going to have an aggressive strategy for communicating both directly to the American people and to the American people through the media. Deborah Pryce runs the Conference and will be in charge of communicating on behalf of the Conference.”

The Ohio Republican and longtime member of the leadership has embraced the expanded communications role and aims to hit the ground running.

Pryce, the highest-ranking women ever elected to the majority party’s leadership team, has spent enough time at the table (she served as both secretary and vice chairwoman before winning the full chairmanship title in November) to recognize what has worked and what has not when it comes to media relations. Also, unlike many other Republican leaders, she does not have her sights set on attaining the Speakership one day and is happy to have an open line of communication with everyone and share power, as well as responsibilities.

“We have a team that works well together,” Pryce said in an interview. “There’s a high level of trust and enthusiasm.”

In the past two months, Pryce has worked hard to attract an experienced staff, snatching Kathryn Lehman, who served a brief stint as coalitions director for Hastert last year and before that worked as DeLay’s policy director.

These dynamics create a friendlier working environment than her predecessor, then-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), endured. Watts had a rocky relationship with others in the leadership, particularly DeLay, over delivery of the party’s message.

Just two weeks into the new Congress, Hastert has pledged to keep Pryce in the immediate information loop.

“J.C. did a great job at communications,” Feehery said. “We’re trying to give even more authority to Deborah Pryce, building on the success of J.C.”

Already, Pryce is using her experience at the table to retool the job and draw on the talents and attributes of the Conference, giving the two leadership positions of vice chairman and secretary, whose roles in the past were amorphous at best, more definition and responsibilities.

“There is enough work to go around and we have a lot of talent,” Pryce said.

Newly elected Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.) had previously served as head of the GOP Theme Team, which organized Members with special expertise to sound off during one-minute speeches on the House floor. The Theme Team will now become part of his vice chairman duties and he will expand those efforts to special orders and to supplying radio shows around the country with a ready stable of Republican voices from the House.

“I really think we are better served as a Radio City kick line where all the dancers are in sync,” Kingston said. “Any given one of them is doing their whole part for the show rather than just spotlighting two or three superstars.”

House GOP Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.) plans to head up an incumbent-retention program, which is separate but complementary to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s efforts.

Doolittle said he will focus special attention on vulnerable freshman lawmakers, briefing them on such basics as the use of franked mail and more complex duties like honing their fundraising and communications skills.

Incumbent retention is more important than ever, Doolittle said, because the new campaign finance reform laws enacted last year may make it more difficult for the party committees to bail out vulnerable incumbents.

“In the past, if the freshmen didn’t pull it all together the NRCC could come to the rescue and do issue ads to help them,” he explained. “That is a resource that may no longer be available if a freshman is caught flat-footed.”

As a whip operation veteran, Doolittle said the new leadership team is a breath of fresh air.

“There were a lot of undercurrents in the past,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see the same kinds of problems.”