Clever Clinton's Got the Drop on the GOP

TRB

July 02, 1993|By TRB

Washington. -- "There's never been a better time to run as a Republican,'' Rep. Bill Paxon, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told my colleague Fred Barnes recently.

Didn't a Republican recently win the open Texas Senate seat with 67 percent of the vote? Meanwhile, direct-mail fund-raising campaigns are sucking record sums out of right-wing wallets. Rush Limbaugh has 16 million listeners. Anti-Clintonism, writes Mr. Barnes, has ''revived the conservative movement beyond its wildest dreams.''

Maybe I have wilder dreams than conservatives. But I doubt it. And it seems to me that the most under-discussed news of the first six months of the Clinton presidency is that, as far as his re-election is concerned, he now has the Republicans right where he wants them.

Don't laugh. Start with the issue that won the Texas Senate seat for the GOP -- a call to cut the deficit by slashing spending rather than raising taxes. Barely two weeks after the Texas election, Senate Republicans presented their actual deficit-reduction plan. It was unveiled June 23 and defeated the same day. It came and went so quickly that few people noticed how pathetic it was.

The Republican plan didn't contain any tax increases, all right. But it also didn't come close to eliminating the deficit.

The Senate Democrats' plan, stripped of various accounting tricks, cuts the deficit about $445 billion over five years. The Republicans, according to their own calculations, managed only a $367 billion reduction. They got that by, first, accepting all Mr. Clinton's defense cuts. Then they accepted all the Senate Democrats' spending cuts. Then, to make up for dropping the Democrats' tax increases, they proposed ''caps'' on spending.

Spending ''caps,'' of course, are not spending cuts. A spending cut directs that a specific expenditure not be made. A spending cap is simply a pledge by Congress to force itself to cut something, somewhere, at some time in the future. It is like promising to start your diet next week.

The Republican plan is now a piece of paper in last week's trash. But it's still significant because it undermines two of the GOP's most feared electoral strategies. The first is the claim, reiterated for at least 13 years, that the deficit can, in practice, be controlled through spending cuts alone. That's no longer credible. Second, it will be hard for Republicans to claim President Clinton has gutted defense when they have embraced his defense cuts.

No tax issue. No defense issue. No communism issue. What does the right have left --assuming Mr. Clinton doesn't hand them the competence issue? Well, they can hope for a recession.

More aggressively, they talk of a ''culture war'' against liberals, featuring battles over crime, abortion and family values. The problem here is that, since the 1960s, most Democrats have moved ''right,'' while mainstream culture has moved ''left.'' The gaps that remain often consist of differences in nuance or degree. William Kristol, Dan Quayle's former chief of staff, told the New York Times that ''I do not think society can or should treat homosexuality the same as heterosexuality, or at least the same as the heterosexual family.'' Mr. Kristol did not say homosexuality is evil. He couldn't even bring himself to say it's flatly worse than heterosexuality. Some ''culture war!''

In order for the ''culture'' issue to work, Democrats have to take the bait -- proposing to legalize gay marriage, for example. President Clinton isn't about to do this. Quite the opposite. Mr. Kristol suggests that conservatives might coalesce around a ''one-nation'' agenda -- combining opposition to reverse discrimination with ''English-only,'' pro-assimilation sentiments and some immigration controls. Sounds coherent and powerful. It's also nothing Mr. Clinton can't endorse.

President Clinton can only really be cornered when a powerful Democratic interest group -- or an intensely held Democratic doctrine -- prevents him from being flexible. He could never embrace a true ''choice'' plan to replace the public schools, because the teachers' unions wouldn't stand for it. But schools are mainly a local issue. Name a federal question where Mr. Clinton is similarly shackled. I can't.

This is the real significance of Mr. Clinton's much-publicized ''shift'' to the center. It's not so much that he is now positioned where most of the votes are (though he is). It is that he's now positioned where he can move to co-opt any particular conservative ''culture'' issue that threatens to catch on.

Sidney Blumenthal of The New Yorker criticizes the president's neo-centrism, arguing ''there is no new, post-Cold War consensus hiding just beneath the surface of public opinion, waiting to be fished out.'' The opposite view, suggested by analysts William Schneider and E.J. Dionne Jr., is that American voters have been pretty clear about what they want (e.g., an abortion compromise), but the ideologies of the two parties have somehow conspired to prevent them from getting it.

If this is true, then the president who frees himself from his party's demands and seizes the middle ground is capable of dominating national politics for a long time. That's what Bill Clinton is on the verge of doing.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Mickey Kaus.

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