GOP risks bitter electorate in opposing to bitter end



WASHINGTON -- There have been times when you couldn't get a unanimous vote in Congress even for a declaration of war. Yet we have now seen the spectacle of all 175 Republicans in the House of Representatives totally unified in their opposition to President Clinton's economic plan.

On the Senate side, despite some muttering about potential dissent from Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, the Republican cohesion has been just as striking. Imagine that: 219 Republicans in Congress all agreed on their position on the budget.

But the question of whether this display of hostility is politically prudent is another matter. And, privately, some Republicans in both the House and Senate are beginning to talk among themselves about the necessity for breaking ranks, if only to avoid their party's being cast as implacable nay-sayers for partisan reasons.

There is no mystery about these second thoughts. Although the opinion polls have shown consistently rising opposition to the Clinton plan, they also have found that most voters recognize the solid Republican opposition for what it has been -- pure politics.

In one sense, the Republican intransigence has paid some political dividends by forcing the president into an unseemly scramble to put together winning majorities solely on the basis of votes within his party.

That scrambling, in turn, has added to the perception of Clinton as weak and ineffectual, the first Democratic president in 12 years desperately striving for enough support among his party colleagues to approve the main item on his agenda.

But political strategists in both parties wonder about the image of the Republicans as a minority determined to resist to the bitter end, whatever the merits of the legislation. Surely there must be a few isolated GOP congressmen and senators who could be expected to find the plan preferable to no action at all.

The danger for the Republicans is obvious. If there was a message in the election returns of 1992, it was that the voters were fed up with congressional "gridlock" and with partisan bickering for its own sake. A recent study of Ross Perot supporters found them more concerned with improving Congress than anything else. Indeed, Perot's own opposition to the Clinton plan was written off as "purely political" by a majority in one recent survey.

Some of the most politically acute Republicans realize they may have stuck with their hands too long. According to sources in a position to know, several senators have told their leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, that they cannot promise to continue to march in lock step on other issues, such as health care reform.

To some degree, Clinton contributed to the Republican unity by refusing at the outset to bring GOP congressional leaders into the discussion of the economic package. He did so, moreover, at a time when Sen. Pete V. Domenici, the leading Republican on budget issues, was signaling a willingness to negotiate.

But the Republicans had their reasons for their adamant opposition. They saw an opportunity to embarrass the new Democratic president and perhaps even cripple him politically. They still believe, with some justification, that any Democratic budget plan can be successfully labeled a continuation of the "tax and spend" policies of the past. They intend to try next year to hang that label around the necks of all the Democrats in both houses who supported the bill -- unless, of course, the economy does improve by late 1994, in which event a vote for the Clinton plan might appear positively golden.

They are so determined to beat this horse to death that they now are threatening a lawsuit against the retroactive features of the tax increases, conveniently forgetting times when they and other Republicans also voted for retroactivity on taxes and tax breaks alike. It is a strategy that clearly reinforces the perception of the Republicans as willing to fight to the last dog rather than seek a compromise.

The lesson in the 1992 returns was that voters were looking for positive actions to improve the economy, not just blind dogma.

And many party strategists today are convinced that the Republican hopes for 1996 rest on finding some policies on which they can take a stand and earn an identification. Being against Bill Clinton isn't enough.

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