For the president, long, tough road lies ahead

November 09, 1994|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Republican tidal wave that swept over the midterm congressional elections yesterday presents President Clinton with an extremely dismal outlook for the second half of his White House term and beyond, if he seeks re-election in 1996.

With the GOP capturing control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 42 years, Mr. Clinton's hopes of only two years ago of being an "agent of change" have been severely compromised by the prospect of an opposition party pressing an agenda of its own, harking back to the conservatism of the Ronald Reagan years.

The greatly strengthened GOP position, coupled with conservative Democrats who demonstrated their independence from their own president in his first two years, also signals a return of the "boll weevil" phenomenon of Republicans and predominantly Southern Democrats that helped former President Reagan put through his deep budget cuts and defense buildup in his first two years in office.

This time around, however, the essentially same conservative coalition, with even more Republican heft, is very likely to stymie Mr. Clinton's hopes for major legislation in 1995 and 1996 -- especially for health care and welfare reform. Unable to crack congressional gridlock on key issues in his first two years, Mr. Clinton faces the prospect of even more of the same now.

Psychologically, he must deal with the inevitable impression that he has been repudiated at the polls, especially after making such an intensive personal effort to stem the Republican tide with his pell-mell campaigning across the country in the last 10 days. Never mind that presidents, even the popular Mr. Reagan, seldom have had strong coattails in midterm elections.

Now the president must choose between two strategies for dealing with the greatly augmented congressional opposition against him. He can strive for bipartisanship, which for all the conciliatory words from Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole and prospective Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich seems unlikely after the bitterness of the campaign just ended. Or he can dig in his heels, wield the veto in the manner of his GOP predecessor, George Bush, and blame the opposition party for the lack of legislative achievement.

The Republican leaders were so confident going into yesterday's voting that Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich already had begun planning for the takeover of Congress. Both said they would be calling President Clinton to offer the hand of cooperation, but the Republicans already have indicated they want to take a far different legislative path from the one Mr. Clinton traveled in his first two White House years.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that spearheaded the party's big Senate victory, said last night that the GOP's agenda would include passage of a balanced budget amendment, a much tougher crime bill and "real" welfare reform that would not coddle recipients. "The American people tonight said they want less government, they want more freedom," said Mr. Gramm, an undeclared but certain 1996 presidential aspirant.

The issues Mr. Gramm mentioned are part of the "Contract With America" drawn up by Mr. Gingrich and supported by more than 300 Republican congressional candidates this fall. The Democrats have derided it as no more than a throwback to the Reagan-Bush policies of the 1980s that the Democrats liked to believe were repudiated in Mr. Clinton's election two years ago. Now the outlook is for the same old battles to be fought all over again, as the Democratic president seeks to achieve goals with a Republican-controlled Congress that he could not gain when his own party was in charge of both Houses.

One message that seems indisputably clear from the election results is that voters are fed up with gridlock, yet are unhappy with Mr. Clinton's efforts to use government as an agent of change. A lesson of his first two years, seen in the drawn-out fight over health care reform, is that the voters want no sweeping social welfare programs and prefer incremental approaches.

Although anti-incumbency was supposed to be rampant, it is notable that most Senate Democratic incumbents and all Senate Republican incumbents were re-elected. The other Republican Senate gains came in open seats -- those in which no incumbent was seeking re-election -- including all six previously held by Democrats. Thus, the results seemed to be more anti-Democratic Party, and anti-Clinton, than anti-incumbent.

With Mr. Clinton's popularity at a low ebb, the Republican strategy of attempting to "nationalize" what traditionally are local-issue dominated midterm congressional elections appeared to pay off. The president's frenzied 11th-hour personal campaigning around the country may have only made him more of an issue in voters' decision-making.

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