A new ballgame

November 14, 1994|By Marianne Means

Washington -- OOPS. THE ROOF fell in last week. What should President Clinton and his party do now?

The president contends that the atmospherics got him: The voters didn't like all the partisan squabbling and legislative constipation they saw in Washington. They wanted change when they elected him, and he hadn't provided enough of it.

The Republicans insist it was the agenda that did it: They were specific about their ideological goals, although not about how to pay for everything without increasing the budget deficit. The voters don't just want action, they want precisely the items the GOP promised.

Whatever the underlying truth, the Republicans are now determined to control the national political agenda and leave the Democratic minority in the dust. They talk about working together, but what they really mean is that the president and his party should roll over, give in and give up.

Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich and Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a likely 1996 GOP presidential candidate, have been more candid about this than it would seem politic to be. They are not very interested in compromise and cooperation.

Senator Gramm, for instance, observed bluntly that the GOP newcomers "are not going to be of a mind to cut some kind of a deal with Bill Clinton . . ."

The president's initial reaction to his Election Day disaster was to sound conciliatory and stress that he expected to operate from the center, trying to cooperate with the least radical Republicans.

This, alas, is the kind of murky moderation that we have come to expect from a southern policy wonk who often seems more interested in counting the acorns on the trees than surveying the forest. It is not, however, the stuff from which powerful political leadership is forged.

Nor is it a prescription for re-election in two years. If the public has a choice between an ersatz Republican and a real one, it will pick the real one every time.

It is no longer the president's sole job to make government work. Much of that burden has been passed on to a Republican Congress; let them make of it what they will.

And it is not in Bill Clinton's political interest to help the Republicans in Congress look good. He should do to the Republicans what they did to him the past two years -- block everything they try to do that he can.

Why should he help them build a record on which to run against him in two years?

It is through confrontation rather than cooperation that the issues will become sharply polarized so that voters can better draw a contrast between the two parties than they were able to do this year.

Now that the Republicans must govern, the enemy is out in the open. It was difficult for Bill Clinton to blame them for governmental inaction so long as the Democrats nominally controlled both houses. But he has just been liberated.

While the president was trying to be all things to all people, the Republicans concentrated on their core constituency.

By sticking to a few simple themes that resonated with certain groups, Republicans energized their supporters and got them to the polls. Gun owners, white Christian fundamentalists, conservative males, crime victims and talk-radio listeners turned out in droves.

Bill Clinton, by contrast, never excited the traditional Democratic base. The party has always done best when it sticks to its New Deal image of defending the little people against the Republican Party of the rich. This doesn't have to mean an embrace of big government, but it does have to mean insistence on a compassionate one.

But Bill Clinton had often strayed from that theme in his mostly futile legislative efforts to woo the handful of GOP votes he needed to pass his programs. So when he kept urging voters to stay the course, they understandably wondered: What course?

A dry recitation of the number of jobs added, bills signed and economic indicators bolstered was no match for the raw power of the cry to toss out the bums and start over.

The Republicans were able to define President Clinton in an unflattering way to suit themselves because he failed to define himself.

At least the Republicans had a basic message: less taxes, less government, more defense spending, less social spending. President Clinton's message that government can play a positive, more efficient role in bettering the lives of ordinary people was too complicated and his own actions too contradictory.

It is Bill Clinton's challenge now to return to Democratic basics and engage the Republicans in open hand-to-hand combat. The GOP is so far to the right on many major issues that he doesn't even have to move to the left. He can take them on from the middle so long as he stops being so infuriatingly mushy and sticks to some inflexible, core convictions.

He can fight, or he can fold. If he wants re-election, he does not really have a choice.

For despite the massive GOP victory, not all the promises made by Republican conservatives are wildly popular. If they rush to repeal the assault weapons ban or criminalize abortion, for instance, they could set off a political firestorm that might result in their own removal from office in two years.

A post-election CNN survey indicates that even while throwing out the Democrats, 49 percent of those surveyed said they preferred to continue the current economic policies, as opposed to 40 percent who wanted a return to Reaganomics.

What the voters giveth, the voters can taketh away.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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