Clinton's GOP-Made Victory

August 28, 1994

Slash and burn tactics by hardline Republicans determined to humiliate President Clinton at every turn have come a cropper on the issue of crime.

Before the party-splitting maneuvers that put the GOP in the position of opposing the most important crime legislation in years, Republicans gloried in their reputation as the toughest pols on the block. No more. Now they are just gun-toters for the National Rifle Association, even though the crime bill's ban on assault weapons was favored by police enforcement units throughout the country.

Just what the political fallout will be cannot be determined until voters go to the polls in November. But Democrats will be out on the stump claiming full credit for the crime bill. And Republicans will be having to explain why they tried to kill a measure which contained so many provisions -- more prisons, more cops, tougher enforcement of the death penalty -- that they had championed.

The implications for Republican presidential politics may be even more profound. The Republican leadership in Congress could have let the crime bill sail through as the bipartisan endeavor it was. Then, for Mr. Clinton, the crime bill would have been a small victory at best. Instead, the GOP leadership tried to crush the president, and in the process gave him not one but two stunning come-from-behind victories on Capitol Hill.

This has to be bad news for Senate Republican leader Bob Dole and conservative Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, since both have White House ambitions. GOP voters will have more reason to turn to a governor, say Pete Wilson of California or Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, rather than a candidate who is part of the Washington Establishment.

Republicans contend that the $30.2 billion crime bill, financed by a questionable funding mechanism, contains too much "pork" of the liberal Democratic spending variety. But can the party make the case that social programs designed to lure inner-city kids away from criminal behavior are a waste of taxpayer money? One GOP defector, Sen. John Danforth, thinks not. And even if the fiscal austerity argument has some justification, can the GOP make this convincing to an electorate demanding that something be done about crime?

That 58 Republicans in the House and seven in the Senate felt it necessary to break from the party leadership -- and give Bill Clinton a big victory -- says something of the turmoil in opposition ranks.

A fortnight of acrimonious crime bill debate might have the effect of denying the Democrats time to pass President Clinton's health care reform legislation. Indeed, some Democrats have charged that is what the whole exercise was about. Such inside-the-beltway gimmickry, however, might not make such impact on voters who want reasonable legislative action on both health care and crime. As Mr. Clinton goes on vacation -- his presidency once again saved from exaggerated predictions of its destruction -- he may figure that with enemies like Republicans, who needs friends?

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