"Cold-Hearted" Governors Now "Moderates"

Networks Promote "Pragmatic Centrist" Republican Governors Who Used to Be Media Targets

The national media's repetitive suggestions that the Republican Party could improve its electoral chances by abandoning conservative ideas and politicians continued on Election Night. Tom Brokaw prodded Trent Lott: "As you know, the Republican candidates for Governor who were successful tonight ran away from the presidential scandal and concentrated on more pragmatic and practical solutions to everyday problems out there. Do you think congressional Republicans need to learn something from their brethren in the state houses?"

The next morning on Today, Newsweek and NBC analyst Jonathan Alter insisted: "So this is a bad election for extremists in both parties and a bad night I think for the Christian Coalition and those who want to pull the Republican Party to the right. The centrist, pragmatic Republican Governors did very well." But were all the Republican state house winners "pragmatic centrists"? Not in the media's eyes, if you consider Michigan's John Engler:

January 19, 1992. CBS Sunday Morning reporter David Culhane did a long feature on Engler's decision to abolish the general-assistance program for able-bodied adults: "Michigan's Republican Governor John Engler says he cut welfare assistance not just to solve budget problems, but because the basic philosophy was wrong." CBS balanced five soundbites of Engler with 17 from poor people and social service advocates like Peppy Rosenthal who said: "I'm a survivor of the Holocaust, and you know in my wildest dreams I never dreamt I would come to this country and have to protect children from going hungry and homeless." Engler's cuts had nothing to do with children on the welfare rolls (or the Holocaust).

February 3, 1992. Tom Brokaw nagged Engler from the left about welfare reform: "Governor, is there a danger here that welfare reform will become kind of a popular whipping boy and that a lot of people who have a short term need will be thrown out on the street?...There is no question about the fact that welfare does need to be reformed in some fashion. But for example in New Jersey, they're providing a real support structure for those people who are taken off the rolls. You don't have that kind of a support structure in Michigan...Governor, do you know anybody who's on welfare who enjoys it?"

March 18, 1996. On CBS This Morning, reporter Linda Douglass evaluated potential vice presidential running mates for Bob Dole: "Engler wants the job, he's very conservative, he's a passionate campaigner. But he may be too conservative to appeal to the women voters, for example, who are going to have trouble with a totally conservative Republican ticket."

October 21, 1998. On Today, NBC's Anne Thompson covered Engler's run against Democrat and Jack Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. Her description fit a tax-cutting crusader, not a moderate: "On the campaign trail, Engler is positive, talking about his administration's 24 tax cuts and Michigan's revved-up economy, taking the only occasional swipe at his opponent."

Republican governors were presented as a threat when welfare reform hadn't yet become a winning issue for Bill Clinton. Now the media see the hard-right threat as the impeachers in Congress, and suggest their role models ought to be governors who focus on mundane policy matters instead of presidential perjury. - Tim Graham