The nation wants reform are Republicans listening?



WASHINGTON -- When it came time for the Republicans to make their reply to President Clinton's speech on health care reform the other night, the nation was treated to the spectacle of three back-benchers -- Sen. Connie Mack of Florida, Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina and Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut -- well armed with conservative cliches.

Mack said Clinton's plan would lead to an "explosion" in the size of government with a "faceless government bureaucracy" deciding on medical care. Campbell called it "a giant social experiment devised by theorists who have never met a payroll." Johnson had the political chutzpah to "welcome the president's entry into this important dialogue," thus suggesting rather outlandishly that the Republicans have been taking the lead on health care reform all along.

Nor were these the only Republicans taking such a line. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who has giddy if improbable visions of the White House himself, said the plan is so bad "people will be hunting Democrats with dogs by the end of the century." House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the never-silent voice of the Far Right in the House, sneered that the problems with Clinton's TelePrompTer demonstrated how a bureaucracy can't even run a speech, let alone a health care system.

Using conventional political rhetoric is, of course, not a felony. But in this case, these Republicans adopted a partisan tone that contrasted so sharply with Clinton's rhetoric that you had to wonder if they had heard his speech at all.

More to the point, you had to wonder if these Republicans understand what happened in the 1992 election and what is going on in American politics today.

If there was a message in the 62 percent of the voters who cast ballots against President George Bush last November, it was that the electorate is tired of political sloganeering and wants to see government demonstrate it can deal with national concerns. If there was one particular piece of political baggage that sank Bush, it was the widespread belief among the electorate that he was not very concerned about domestic problems and, even if he were, didn't have a clue about how to solve them.

Not all Republicans have failed to understand there is a pervasive enough public concern about health care to make it important for their party to play a part in constructing a better system. Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, perhaps the party's leading expert on the issue, emphasized the similarities between the Senate Republican plan and Clinton's and quickly called for bipartisan negotiation. And Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole sent an unmistakably conciliatory message when, recalling his own experience after he was severely wounded in World War II, he said, "A lot of us have been recipients of a lot of health care. I certainly have."

Haley Barbour, the party's national chairman, has been restrained.

"We're for health care reform," he says. "The issue is not whether; the issue is how. We're for doing it the right way."

But the essential point is that the Republicans are clearly divided, perhaps even fragmented, in their views on how to handle the health care issue politically. The smart ones -- like Dole and Barbour -- seem to understand that it is not enough to sneer and posture. But there are enough of the others so that, for example, Chafee could not be used as the party's rebuttal spokesman because he is too identified with trying to take a constructive approach to be representative of the Phil Gramms and Newt Gingriches.

Nor is this Republican problem limited to any single issue. The lesson the smart ones learned from the 1992 campaign is that it is essential for the party to stand for something, not just against the Democrats. That is why, for example, Barbour is creating a "national policy forum" to come up with party positions on significant issues. The message there is that making fun of Slick Willie may be good sport, but it is not a magic answer for a minority party seeking political resurrection.

But the health care issue confronts the Republicans with a complex challenge. It is an issue with enough reach to have allowed Clinton to regain control of the political agenda and turn the electorate's attention away from the stumbles of his first months. Most importantly, it is an issue that is of greatest concern to the broad middle class -- which is where elections are won and lost.

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