1994 is not a good time to play games with voters



WASHINGTON -- As a substantive matter, the House Republicans' "Contract with America" is an obvious gimmick. As a political matter, it is probably even worse.

The 350-plus Republicans, incumbents and challengers did get the immediate reward they were seeking -- coverage on both network and local television news programs -- as they lined up in front of the Capitol to sign the document promising all sorts of grand things if they can win the 40 seats that would give them control of the House and make Newt Gingrich the speaker next year.

But, as both congressional Democrats and the White House quickly pointed out, the "contract" was full of holes -- promising to reduce taxes, increase defense spending and reduce the federal deficit all at once.

The last time the Republicans tried to do that, under President Ronald Reagan, it was called "voodoo economics" and resulted in the highest deficits in the history of the republic.

The contract is shot through with obvious crowd-pleasers. There are predictable promises to pass a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, make cuts in capital gains taxes, pass term limits and welfare reform, even give a "family tax credit" to each taxpayer.

What are lacking, however, are any indications the Republicans have any new ideas or any specifics about how their old ideas could be financed.

Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, one of the Republicans with the greatest credibility on budget issues, may have spent some of his political capital when he suggested that it was "our goal to clearly reinvent the operation of the federal government" and thus find the money to pay for that higher defense spending and those lost revenues.

For one thing, Vice President Al Gore already is "reinventing the government." For another, this is the kind of pap that politicians are always promising at every level and almost never deliver at any -- that they will cut the fat and waste out of the budget.

Two obvious inferences can be drawn from this Republican strategy. The first is that the Republicans believe it makes sense to nationalize the election campaign as much as possible to take advantage of the obvious political weakness of President Clinton. That makes sense. In close contests, even a percentage point or two can make the difference, and anything that identifies Democratic incumbents with the president makes them at least that much more vulnerable in this strange campaign.

But the second inference that can be drawn from this "contract" gimmick is that the Republicans believe the voters are gullible enough to swallow it. And that is precisely where the strategy fails.

This is not a year in which a bunch of men in blue suits and red ties lined up on the Capitol steps is a positive political message. On the contrary, the anger out there in the electorate is directed at incumbents as a group and is working for the Republicans because there are so many more Democratic incumbents, including the president, on whom voters can vent their spleen.

Indeed, given the attitude of the voters toward politics as usual this year, it is hard to imagine anyone paying much attention either to the Republicans going through their little charade or to the Democrats and White House officials shooting back at them. The bad news for both parties is that politicians in general have so little credibility, an argument like this one isn't going to make much of an impression.

The Republicans also open themselves up to another political thrust. Because their plan doesn't spell out how most of the money would be provided, the Democrats inevitably will argue that once again the Republicans are plotting to divert money from the only place it might be available, entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The saving grace for the Republicans in this case is that the Democratic attempts to make that case probably won't get much of a hearing either.

There is nothing venal or unusual in political gimmicks like the one the Republicans are using. On the contrary, both parties have improvised such devices for years to get a little press and television attention for themselves. And promises that involve no pain for the voters are always popular. They don't kill Santa Claus, the old rule says.

But 1994 is not a good year for playing games with the electorate.

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