Clinton picks GOP's pockets of beloved issues

ON THE POLITICAL SECENE

May 21, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's health care plan is floundering, his foreign policy goals are a mystery even to America's allies, Democrats are losing off-year elections and only one-third of the public thinks he has "high" ethical standards.

But if Bill Clinton sounds like a one-term president, there is one thing that Republicans concede he has going for him: He is systematically looting the Republican cupboard of its most cherished issues, including crime, welfare, family values and perhaps even deficit spending.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Haley Barbour, the Republican National Committee chairman. "Ronald Reagan literally changed the political landscape of the country, and now Clinton is trying to carjack our rhetoric."

Mr. Barbour argues that there's a difference between talking the Republican talk and actually passing Republican budgets and legislation. But you've got to start somewhere -- and Mr. Clinton seems off to a good start.

For more than a generation, the national Democratic Party boxed itself into various corners that put it at odds with voting majorities.

Democratic-controlled Congresses taxed and spent while Democratic legislators and judges seemed to favor criminal rights over victims. Welfare became a self-perpetuating entitlement, and when Republicans talked about "family values," Democratic elites attacked them for intolerance -- or simply snickered.

On foreign policy, Republicans viewed the Soviet empire as an evil that had to be confronted at every turn. Democrats mouthed platitudes about America not being able to be the "world's policeman."

"The party that controls the center pretty much controls the game," said John White, a former Democratic Party chief. "The Republicans were right-center, and we were left-left."

But over time, even die-hard party liberals tired of losing presidential elections. And the Democratic Leadership Council (of which Bill Clinton is a charter member) urged the party to become more moderate because the public happened to be right about these issues.

Perhaps most significantly, the end of the Cold War left Republicans without their single overarching issue.

"We don't have the burden of the Russian bear hanging over us anymore," says Dane Strother, a Democratic campaign consultant. "It has changed everything."

Mr. Strother said he became aware of how much things had changed last month, when a Democratic Texas senatorial candidate, Richard Fisher, caught a plane for Moscow the day after the primary -- and no one batted an eye.

"Ten years ago, if anyone had film of a Texan going to Russia like that," he said, "you'd be finished."

But a politician needs to make his own breaks, and Mr. Clinton has done that. Repeatedly, he has taken a liberal Democratic position and molded it into a liberal-moderate position that more closely reflects the thinking of the majority.

Mr. Clinton raised taxes his first year in office -- but he raised them only on well-off Americans, and then he applied some concurrent budget cuts to reducing projected federal deficits.

He also took on the National Rifle Association, first on handgun registration and then on banning assault weapons. But he also embraced capital punishment, something voters often use as a symbolic measure of an officeholder's commitment to fighting crime.

Mr. Clinton's staff is working on a plan to "end welfare as we know it," while the president himself is traveling around the country, a la Dan Quayle, giving speeches that stress the social responsibility young Americans have to stay in school and to refrain from guns, drugs, booze or having babies.

All this has been making Republicans cranky.

William J. Bennett, a prominent Republican who wrote the best-selling "Book of Virtues," said it was ironic that Mr. Clinton, who is staving off another allegation of sexual impropriety, would be lecturing young people about responsibility.

"Is there some irony there?" asked Mr. Bennett. "I mean, this guy telling kids, 'Sex is not a sport.' "

There are other ironies, too. For one, Mr. Bennett's older brother, Robert, is defending the president against this most recent problem, a sexual-harassment lawsuit from a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Corbin Jones.

But the most significant twist may be that while partisan Republican stalwarts like Mr. Bennett and Mr. Barbour are irritated, some conservative activists with more loyalty to ideology than to the Republican Party are delighted by Mr. Clinton's forays into their turf.

"It's clever," said conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie. "It's been demonstrated over time that that is where the votes are. No one's ever run -- and won -- the presidency running as a liberal. The average margin for a liberal Democrat is 43 percent -- exactly what Clinton got in '92."

In that election, Mr. Clinton promised to be a "new kind of Democrat." He also had the benefit of a three-way race in which Ross Perot siphoned off votes from George Bush.

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