GOP carries handicap in criticizing Clinton ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress are trapped by their own party history in making the case against President Clinton's economic program. The result is that they are obliged to fall back on that oldest of old chestnuts -- that Clinton is just another liberal tax-and-spend Democrat.

Even under the most auspicious circumstances, the Republicans would be somewhat hamstrung in fashioning a response. They are in the minority in both houses and are singularly lacking in national figures to serve as their spokesmen -- except, of course, for Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, his presidential ambitions showing through clearly, is having a lot to say but does not yet qualify as an influential figure in the debate. The same can be said of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who is a big fish only in the small pond of conservative House Republicans.

There are, of course, other Republicans with followings in the party that may make them leading figures in the competition for the 1996 presidential nomination, most notably former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp. But that election is too far away to make anyone's potential candidacy an impressive credential.

Then there is the problem of the record. Clinton's program may be flawed, but at least he is coming to grips with the fundamental weaknesses in the economy. The inability to do that is just what lost the election for George Bush.

Similarly, the Republicans are in a box on the deficit question after 12 years of building the horrendous national debt under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Bush. The only time either of these Republican presidents agreed to what appeared to be a serious attack on the deficit was when Bush signed on to the budget deal and tax program of 1990.

There is, moreover, some peril for the Republicans in their partisan carping, which began even before the program was fully defined. One of the lessons of the different politics of 1992 was that there were many voters who were sick and tired of blame-placing and partisanship and more interested in someone who would tell them the truth about what needed to be done.

It was that element of the electorate that made Paul Tsongas such a serious factor in the early stages of the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it was those same people who rallied behind independent Ross Perot and are still interested in hearing from him.

The Republicans also are complaining about how they were not adequately consulted on the Clinton plans -- conveniently forgetting how infrequently Reagan and Bush dealt with the Democratic leadership during their years of ascendancy.

The hard truth is that the White House doesn't need Republicans to pass an economic program in the House of Representatives. In the Senate there are enough Republicans -- 43, vs. 57 Democrats -- to sustain a filibuster. But it is hard to believe filibusters will be popular with voters concerned about whether the government can find a way to produce more jobs.

The Republican line on tax-and-spend does have some sting. There is no question Democratic presidents and Democratic majorities in Congress have been more than willing to spend on social programs rather than on deficit reduction in the past.

But the Clinton plan does not envision significant new spending on social programs. On the contrary, the one big item on that side is the outlay for the infrastructure that is designed to produce 500,000 new jobs in a hurry, a goal that is probably unrealistic but worth attempting when there are still 9 million Americans unemployed.

On the tax side, it is clear that Clinton is playing traditional Democratic politics in sticking it to those in the upper income brackets, the affluent who are more likely to be Republican anyway. That is one of the differences between the two parties, as Reagan and Bush demonstrated in their own way over the past 12 years.

No one imagines that Clinton's program will sail through Congress without substantial revision and compromise. The president and his advisers know they will meet certain resistance from some of their own party, particularly in the Senate. But the Republican opposition is based on shaky political ground.

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