Political sparring heralds capital's campaign season

October 27, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sometime in the past few weeks, the 1992 presidential campaign came to Washington. No announcements or rallies, press releases or staged photo events, just a simple intensification of the daily rhythm of political life in the nation's capital -- and, especially, along Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I think the campaign season began a little bit ago for some folks up here," said the characteristically droll Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan. "They think it's time to play 'let's-throw-the-mud-and-see-what-sticks .' "

Not that the business of running the country is ever devoid of its political element. But with an election year looming, the pace has picked up as leaders of both parties maneuver for political advantage with a blizzard of activity.

The White House surrendered to congressional critics Friday, reversing course and endorsing the very kind of compromise civil rights bill it once had vowed never to accept.

Congressional opponents might have snickered loud and long over this turn of events, except that they were still nursing wounds sustained the previous day, when President Bush -- in something very close to a campaign speech -- attacked them for exempting themselves from a raft of fair employment, anti-discrimination and occupational health and safety laws they had passed for the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, Democrats strained to capitalize on Mr. Bush's perceived vulnerability over the nation's continuing economic woes, drafting a number of tax-cutting packages designed to steal GOP thunder and entice Middle America back into the Democratic fold. Not to be outdone, Republicans laid plans for their own eye-crossing counter-barrage of tax- and deficit-cutting proposals.

There being no rest for the weary, Republicans banged the drum for an FBI investigation to determine the source of the leak of Anita F. Hill's allegations that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while she served as his subordinate at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

House Democrats, for their part, continued to flog a pending congressional inquiry into reports that Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign chieftains influenced that year's election by arranging delay in the release of U.S. hostages held by Iran.

"It's all politics," said Representative Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. "Almost everything that's happening here has to be viewed in the framework of the upcoming elections."

Particularly the presidential election, which both reflects and defines the pressing issues of the moment, and ultimately sets ++ the tone for the political season. Having abandoned dreams of winning a political triple crown victory in the White House, the Senate and the House, Republicans are focusing their attention on their Oval Office hammerlock.

Those efforts have become particularly strained in recent weeks, as the president's once-stratospheric popularity ratings have sunk to more prosaic levels, and Democrats have been emboldened in their attacks on a man they contend is more interested in global matters than in affairs at home.

"We don't need a president of the world; we need a president of the United States," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a presidential candidate. Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., conceded that "the chink in George Bush's armor is the economy."

As a result, the White House and its Republican allies are doing what they can to divert attention from that chink and to blunt Democratic assaults on it and other weak points in Mr. Bush's portfolio.

To that end, for example, the GOP has formally taken up the cudgel of Congress-bashing, assaulting an institution that represents Washington's last redoubt of Democratic dominance. Some of the attacks have been structured to aim at a specific alleged offense, yet refer obliquely to other supposed offenses.

Thursday, for example, the Senate agreed to appoint a special counsel to investigate the supposed leak of the sexual harassment allegations against Justice Thomas, but only after some Republicans had demanded an investigation by the FBI.

The Republican complaints served two purposes: First, they suggested that a Democrat had betrayed an FBI confidence. Second, they served in a roundabout way to remind the public of congressional immunity from many federal regulations -- immunity that Congress wrote for itself into federal laws or immunity that the Constitution gives it from intrusion by the president and executive branch agencies.

Other attacks appear less complex. Shortly before the Senate cut its deal over the leak investigation, Mr. Bush stood before a group of government employees and decried the members of Congress as "a privileged class of rulers who stand above the law."

It was, protested House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., "the beginning of a kind of Congress-bashing and presidential campaign rhetoric that is not helpful, and certainly not accurate."

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