GOP needs to find issues, not just oppose Clinton



WASHINGTON -- Haley Barbour, the ebullient chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been delighting party audiences with his repeated declarations about how easy his job has been with President Clinton in the White House.

In one sense, Barbour is clearly justified in his hubris. In the last year, the Republicans have won two special elections to the Senate, in Georgia and Texas, the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia and the mayoral elections of both New York and Los Angeles. An off-year doesn't get any better than that.

But Barbour is kidding himself if he believes the Republicans can recapture Congress or the White House by simply running against Clinton. If there was a lesson in the success of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and the failure of George Bush in 1992, it is that issues matter. Whatever they thought of Reagan's views, voters understood that he stood for some things. Whatever they thought of Bush's personal qualities, voters recognized that he was out of gas on domestic issues.

But it is by no means clear what the Republican Party represents today, other than opposition to Clinton. And, as became clear at an RNC meeting here the other day, the party's leaders are far from agreed on how to express that opposition.

The crime issue is an easy one for Republicans. They continue to follow the traditional line, espoused by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, that the president's commitment on crime is phony and that the Democrats are as soft on crime as ever. But these days it is hard to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats in their poll-driven zeal to stake out the most extreme positions on the crime problem.

The Republican position on health-care reform is somewhat more complex and ambivalent. There are conservatives in both houses of Congress who insist there is no crisis in health care and have taken hard lines against the Clinton proposals.

But there are others, including Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who are clearly more interested in finding a compromise plan that would attract bipartisan support and accomplish some of the president's objectives but not meet his basic demand for mandated universal health insurance coverage.

Privately, some Republicans are muttering that Dole's willingness to deal on health care is no more than a product of his own presidential ambition that has propelled him across the country at a dizzying pace in the past year. But just as good a case can be made that Dole is smart enough to recognize that nay-saying is not a substitute for a program to put before voters alienated by gridlock.

In the Reagan years the issues that carried the Republicans were their hostility to international communism and to higher taxes. But the former vanished with the end of the Cold War, and Bush demonstrated that opposition to taxes was not enough to compensate for a failure to deal with pervasive weakness in the economy.

If the economic issue dissolves, some Republicans believe they can identify themselves through the social issues that divide them from Democrats most clearly -- abortion rights being an obvious example. But as appealing as those issues may be to conservatives on the religious right, they are anathema to

suburban moderates, who are essential to a winning Republican coalition.

Nor are social issues -- "family values" is the favored label -- likely to be persuasive with those voters who were called "Reagan Democrats" a few years ago. If recent political history is a model, they are much more likely to be moved by concern over their jobs and the use of their tax money for welfare programs.

Clinton, however, has left little room to maneuver on the welfare reform issue with his plan to force beneficiaries into jobs after two years. And the Republicans have not yet projected a sharp image of themselves as different. Nevertheless, it is hardly the kind of issue that, in itself, can make or break a presidential candidate.

The Republicans must identify some positions that go beyond opposition to Clinton. Until they do, Haley Barbour's optimism probably should be taken with a grain of salt.

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