The New Game in Washington

November 19, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

The American voters in their wisdom overturned the normally ruling presidential party and the normally ruling congressional party, reversing roles, within the space of two years.

The result is a new game in Washington. The rules aren't clear. The prize in '96 will go to whichever player figures them out best.

The electorate had been comfortable with divided government during the Reagan-Bush presidency and the liberal Democratic Congress, each canceling out the other's doctrinal excesses.

But wise authorities excoriated the deficit which that presidency and that Congress conspired to enlarge.

The virtue of checks and balances was transformed, in the public mind, into the evil of gridlock.

So in '92, the voters responded to gridlock by giving presidential and congressional power to one party, the Democrats.

President Clinton was a minority winner in a three-way race, but when given a Congress of his own party he could properly claim a mandate. Mandate for what?

He had campaigned for the nomination as someone who was not a liberal, and for the general election as someone who was.

After the election, his administration decided it had been a referendum on radical intervention in health-care insurance.

There was a lot of popular support for this, although many voters had not appreciated earlier that health-care reform was what they had voted for.

Mr. Clinton's biggest problem in pursuing his mandate was the Democratic Congress.

Its members had been schooled during Republican administrations. They knew how to oppose, to mark up administration bills beyond recognition, to interpret advise and consent to mean meddle and obstruct, and to seek oversight even of monetary policy. Once habituated, they did not know how to stop.

For his part, Mr. Clinton clung to advisers ignorant of Washington ways. Previous presidents had done this to their sorrow, and Mr. Clinton had not learned from their examples. One-party government, it turned out, did not end gridlock.

In this '94 election, the voters did not repudiate President Clinton, if only because they had no opportunity. Rather, they punished the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. They gave the Republicans a chance to run both houses, which they had been unwilling to do during the peak of President Reagan's prestige and popularity.

So now the Republicans mean to do to a Democratic president what they saw the Democrats do to theirs. It may not be a pretty sight. No one who values his or her privacy would want to be President Clinton's next nominee to the Supreme Court.

But there is more. The minority leader of the House, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, supervised a campaign document called the Contract with America, a set of legislative goals that supposedly united the party. He now regards it as a presidential platform. He, rather than Mr. Clinton, has a program to adopt.

The catch is that many Republicans who signed an election gimmick disagree with parts of it. Congressional Republicans are main-streamers and right-wingers, traditionalists and radicals, insiders and outsiders, centrists and fringe.

Many are candidates for the Republican nomination for president in 1996.

What can the Republicans get done when Senate Majority Leader-to-be Bob Dole, right-winger Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and centrist Sen. Arlen Specter are all elbows seeking the presidency, while in the lower House, speaker-to-be Gingrich acts as if he already is president.

Republican congressmen do not know what game they're playing any more than the Democrats of '92 did.

Had this election produced a weaker Democratic Congress, President Clinton would have been dead for '96. But, instead, he is at least alive. The Republican profile is high enough to bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction.

The Contract with America is no longer an electoral tool but a set of promises which not all Republican congressmen may favor but against which all may be judged.

The next year, in other words, will see a political contest in which not much may get done but the blame will fix on the less astute.

It is a game at which Mr. Clinton may be more adept than he was at the last one, and in which Messrs. Gingrich, Dole et al. may trip on each other's heels. It is now their game, as much as his, to lose.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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