Watts - spin soldier for GOP - There's a new look to the House GOP leadership in more ways than one. The PR messenger, after all, is the PR message.
Rep. J. C. Watts (R-Oklahoma), the only black Republican House member, is taking over the chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, having defeated Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the sitting chairman by 121 votes to 93 votes in balloting by GOP House members.
But don't make the mistake of thinking Watts has got where he is because of tokenism. 'Part of the reason they picked Watts is because there is a positive PR aspect to him,' insists Dr. Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report. 'But it goes well beyond skin color. He does well in front of the camera. He's smart.'
For the post-Gingrich House Republicans, suffering from PR problems and a disastrous election hangover, the Conference is exactly the place for him and now is the time to be there.
Watts wants to try some different PR ideas, themes and issues. 'I have grown weary of the White House spin machine winning the daily message war. And I am prepared to battle it head on,' he declares.
Watts promises to hire 'top-notch' staff for the Conference's communications department, and Pam Pryor, deputy chief of staff and press secretary for his congressional office, says consultation with PR professionals to help shape the message strategy is quite likely.
She also says an emphasis will be put on promoting greater internal coordination of the party message. Successful companies know how important this is to success; a similar effort needs to be done by the House GOP.
The new chairman proposes weekly staff meetings for press secretaries and communications directors to 'get more people involved in disseminating the GOP message.'
Another area of focus, Watts promises, will be the House GOP's Theme Team: House members who work on creating and disseminating the GOP message.
Too often, the past leadership gave these 'unsung heroes' of House Republicanism 'too little cooperation.' Watts promises more budget and staff.
Another plank in Watts' platform is to make professional speech training and debate preparation available to GOP members. 'We want every member to feel comfortable not only with Republican policy, but with Republican language as well,' he says.
It couldn't come at a better time.
Say 'Republican' and many voters think of rich bankers in dark suits and white shirts with Pentium chips for hearts. Or, post-1994, they think of congressmen calling themselves 'revolutionaries,' decked out in combat fatigues, storming a barricaded White House.
Watts, says GOP pollster and Oklahoma Secretary of State Tom Cole, 'knows how to put forth a conservative message that's attractive and inclusive, not harsh and judgmental.' It's half-Baptist sermon, half-inspirational locker room talk, a throwback to his background as a star college quarterback and youth minister.
Rothenberg notes that star college athletes are often better PR-wise than politicians who've spent more years in front of cameras.
Watts can talk about his Horatio Alger life in a way that is interesting, yet not boastful. That matters to a party perpetually worried about its appeal to minorities, women and even its own moderates.
There's an openness and engaging quality about Watts. Some great speakers do well before large crowds and bomb one-on-one. That's not Watts. He is exactly the kind of messenger a deadly dull party needs to get a big pick-me-up for 2000. But his role will be more than just spokesman.
'The conference chairman is the information broker for the House Republicans,' explains Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney, an expert on the House Republicans.
'When it comes to being a spokesman for his party,' says GOP consultant Bill Greener of Greener & Hook. 'J.C. is as strong as Gunsmoke. He has the capacity to connect and communicate with as broad an array of Americans as anyone I know.'
Watts has proved himself under the glare of klieg lights again and again.
His 1996 GOP national convention speech and the 1997 response to the President's State of the Union address, impressed the party's most jaundiced operatives.
Unlike many GOP robopols who can't deliver spin without having it sound scripted, Watts knows how to take the Republican message, relate it in a Reaganesque way to real people's lives, and make it sound genuinely heartfelt. He also puts substance behind the spin with his co-sponsorship of the Talent-Watts-Davis bill to help impoverished inner-cities and rural areas. 'Conservatism with compassion' is the way, Kim Alfano, Watts' media consultant, describes his appeal.
But some pitfalls may lie ahead. Watts must prove that he can manage the conference with its fractious elements and mesh the House message with that of the GOP-controlled Senate and other key organizations. All the spin Watts delivers on camera and in talking points will mean little if the backbiting and issueless direction that plagued the GOP this last term continues. Particularly important will be his relations with Majority Whip, Tom DeLay (R-Texas), whose own prominence and power within the conference is rising.
There will also be limits to what Watts can deliver. Even black Republicans are skeptical that he can win many black voters over. Too many are still quite skeptical of the party of Lincoln for Watts to have any immediate impact. But he does hold the potential to be an appealing and inviting messenger to many disinclined to the GOP of stereotypes.
So, Watts holds plenty of promise for the House Republicans. Now the party and the nation will see whether his performance matches it.
Rep. J. C. Watts - US House of Representatives
1980 and 1981: Quarterback University of Oklahoma two Orange Bowl victories
1981: Graduates from the University of Oklahoma
1981-1986: Canadian Football League player
1990: Elected to Oklahoma Corporation Commission
1994: Elected to US House of Representatives
1996: Addresses Republican National Convention
1997: Delivers Republican response to President Clinton's State of the Union address
1998: Elected Chairman of the House Republican Conference.