The Fractious 103rd

October 08, 1994

The 103rd Congress is about to go home to face the voters after an extraordinary burst of bipartisan wrangling that marred an early record of fairly solid accomplishment. Republicans are in an exultant mood, even glorifying themselves as the "guardians of gridlock," in anticipation of big gains in the Nov. 8 elections. Democrats, who once felt they could bypass their GOP rivals, are apprehensive, defensive and frustrated.

President Clinton is eager to defend his record and to chastise the Republicans for blocking his agenda through a legislative strategy he defined as "stop it, slow it, kill it or just talk it to death." But in a White House press conference yesterday afternoon he implicitly acknowledged a failure to make his record and his program -- "the big picture," as he called it -- known to the American people.

As a political animal through and through, Mr. Clinton must know that if the GOP actually seizes control of the Senate and achieves an ideological majority in the House, this could help him in his 1996 re-election bid. In Harry Truman style, he could run against a "do-nothing Congress." But as a policy wonk with an activist view of the presidency, he wants to make his mark in history by obtaining passage of the health care, welfare, environmental, trade and congressional reforms that fell by the wayside in recent weeks after Republicans sensed his weakness and closed in for the kill.

Ordinarily, politicians at least give lip-service to their alleged desire to work for the good of the country. But in a major gamble, the GOP leadership decided that the best way to exploit a wave of public resentment toward government was to stop Clinton initiatives in their tracks.

The president yesterday cited his accomplishments in slowing deficit growth, encouraging trade and obtaining passage of a crime bill. But he said he could not turn around long-term economic trends in only two years and accused his GOP tormentors of seeking to return the country to the Reagan-Bush era of "exploding deficits."

What makes this election peculiar is a national mood of discontent that coincides with a surging economy, unemployment below the 6 percent mark and a likelihood the recovery will extend beyond the coming year. The explanations are manifold: fear of crime, breakdown of the family structure, the whining drone of radio talk-show disparagers, no-growth in real wages, tax burdens perceived as oppressive, suspicion of government and private-sector institutions that comprise the establishment. Even the sheer overload of information provided by the communications revolution.

This Congress goes home with its reputation sullied and its incumbents grasping for political advantage. We have not seen the last of it. A certain redemption could come if it returns after the election and, with political passions spent, enacts the most important world trade reform in history.

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