GOP conservative tide sweeps into Congress

January 02, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As 1995 dawns, a new power source is poised to assert itself. A Republican Congress is coming to town for the first time in 40 years, determined to challenge the Democrats, defy the White House and reshape the national political landscape.

The main obstacle in the Republicans' way is President Clinton, whose unpopularity, paradoxically, helped fuel the Republican sweep of 1994 -- and whose history is entwined with the dominant themes of the modern Democratic Party.

Arkansas, Mr. Clinton's home, is the last of the one-party Southern states, a legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Mr. Clinton once quipped that his grandfather thought that when good people died, they went not to heaven but "to Roosevelt."

Now, a new political religion has taken hold. Its leaders have a mandate, a plan and a shared belief that they have been sent to Washington to dismantle two generations' worth of failed Democratic social planning.

This new Republican era dates back to Ronald Reagan, perhaps to Barry Goldwater, but it is now embodied by a new House speaker named Newton Leroy Gingrich, a man whom Democrats have detested and underestimated but never feared -- until now.

It's easy to see why, if one listens to what the Republicans are planning to do: Take the rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution and make it the law of the land.

Armed with an ambitious "first 100 days" battle plan, Mr. Gingrich and his allies have taken Mr. Reagan's wistful description of himself as a "citizen politician" and hardened it into term limits for officeholders. The Republican leaders say they will pass such a measure this year.

The balanced budget that Mr. Reagan spoke about in 1980, but about which he did little, is to be incorporated into a constitutional amendment.

Operating on an even larger canvas, GOP leaders have promised to enact sweeping welfare reform and tough crime bills and to alter national taxing and spending priorities.

In the process, they say, they will convert 15 years of lament about declining American values into legislation that rewards those who work and obey the law, and which "respects the values and shares the faith of the American family."

And even those most protective of Mr. Reagan's legacy are saying that the tide of conservative Republicanism rolling over Washington may be the real deal.

"This one is potentially bigger than ours," said Martin C. Anderson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford who came to Washington as part of the Reagan Revolution in 1980.

"The electorate has moved dramatically in the conservative direction," added James Lake, a lobbyist and Reaganite from California who served as a political adviser to Mr. Reagan. "What started under Reagan is now almost complete. The voters want conservatives in power because they believe that liberal answers to our problems . . . have gotten our nation into a terrible mess."

Republican candidates this autumn trumpeted an alternative, waging a campaign that focused not on local and state issues, but on national ones -- Bill Clinton, big government and liberal Democratic policies on crime, welfare and taxes.

'Contract with America'

House Republicans even came up with a catchy campaign proclamation, their "Contract with America." Their promises included a $500-a-child middle-class tax cut; lower capital gains taxes; welfare reform that would require able-bodied Americans to work; congressional term limits; a balanced budget amendment; more prisons; a ban on U.S. troops serving under United Nations command and more money for defense; sweeping legal reform that would put limits on punitive damages and require losers in lawsuits to pay the legal fees of the other side.

Mr. Clinton and the Democrats attacked the GOP plan with gusto. "I call it the Contract on America," the president said.

The Democrats also convinced themselves that the contract would backfire and blunt the Republicans' drive to capture Congress.

When the votes were counted, the Democrats had lost 53 members in the House, including their speaker, Rep. Thomas S. Foley. In the Senate, the Republicans netted seven seats, meaning that for the first time since 1954 the Republicans will control both houses of Congress.

In the nation's statehouses, it was the same story. Of the big state governorships, exactly one, Florida's, now rests in Democratic hands. Most remarkable was that not a single Republican incumbent was defeated.

"The people just sort of said, 'Democrats, you're fired!' " said Les Francis, a Democratic activist.

Nonetheless, the language coming from the president and his advisers -- and top Democrats on Capitol Hill -- suggests that the party's leaders are having difficulty coming to terms with the verdict of Nov. 8.

Tony Coelho, a political adviser to Mr. Clinton, has taken refuge in polls showing that more than half the voters had never heard of the "contract."

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