The Republicans of '93 don't heed lessons of '92 THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- The capital is filled with Republican sound and fury these days. Whether it signifies anything will depend on whether the loyal opposition has learned any of the political lessons of 1992.

One of those lessons -- most obvious in the response first to Paul Tsongas and later to Ross Perot -- is that the voters are tired of politics as usual and scapegoating. Instead, they elected in Bill Clinton a candidate who carried heavy political baggage but promised change and an activist government in approaching domestic problems.

Or, put another way, they rejected an incumbent president, George Bush, who had been enormously popular only a few months earlier. They did so because they were convinced he would not come to grips with the condition of the economy and concerns about such related questions as the weaknesses in the health care system and public education.

But so far the Republican response from Congress to the Clinton economic program has been the standard complaints of political dialogue in such situations -- that the plan has some misleading numbers, that there aren't enough details, that it won't work.

At least two of those complaints are valid up to a point. There are some tricky definitions and imaginative use of the numbers in the Clinton economic program. That is always true in the federal budget process; every president wants to make his proposals look as dramatic as possible while causing the minimum backlash by glossing over the nasty parts. It is also apparent that there are important specifics still to be advanced by the president, although the argument is far less over the specifics than the thrust of the program.

But the Republican complaint that the plan won't work sounds so much like the conventional whining of losers in Washington. And it sounds particularly hollow coming from the party that has been in power for 12 years while the federal deficit went through the roof and the health care system and the schools continued to deteriorate. The Republicans may point out, as they do, that Clinton is a "minority president" elected with only 43 percent of the vote, but it is equally valid to point out that only 38 percent of the electorate voted for the status quo.

In political terms, the Republicans could make a more effective case by being serious about alternatives to the Clinton plan. But their problem at this point is that they are unable to agree among themselves.

There is still that hard core of supply-siders, particularly in the House, who argue that the country will grow itself out of the deficit despite all the evidence to the contrary. But there is an equally large group of Republicans, particularly in the Senate, who are persuaded that the answer lies in the most serious attack on the deficit through a combination of higher taxes and spending reductions. Their complaint is essentially that the new administration has not gone far enough in prescribing the bitter medicine, especially on the spending side.

The problem for the Republicans is compounded, moreover, by their inability to agree even on strategy -- and specifically on whether they should fight a series of actions against parts of the Clinton plan, most notably the stimulus package -- or offer a comprehensive Republican alternative.

Anyone who listened to the voices of 1992 would recognize that the latter is what the electorate would like to see. If the Republicans have a better program, they have only to put it on the table for comparison. The same could be said of Ross Perot.

But the most astute politicians in Congress realize this might be playing into Clinton's hands. If the minority is willing to put itself on record behind, let's say, serious reductions in farm subsidy programs, the White House and Democrats might be quite willing to go along because the politics would be neutralized.

This, of course, is the core of the Republican dilemma. They want to win on both the substance and the politics.

New opinion polls this week found the response to the Clinton program remaining highly positive, perhaps because the president has been conducting such an intense selling job to such a variety of constituencies over the last 10 days. There are no comparable numbers on the Republicans at this point, but you don't have to take a poll to know they are ignoring the lessons of 1992.

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