Republicans find out it won't be painless


WASHINGTON -- After only two weeks in charge, the Republicans are learning that winning an election does not in itself alter the political realities here.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, most notably, is discovering the truth in an old rule -- what goes around comes around. His complaint that the Democrats are following "a strategy based on personal destruction" in criticizing his book deal has a hollow ring coming from a partisan who followed just such a strategy himself for most of the past 15 years.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is finding, to no one's surprise, that the Democrats are capable of using the same stalling tactics in the Senate that the Republicans have been employing for the past two years.

And House Republicans are learning once again that achieving a genuinely balanced budget is essentially impossible without inflicting politically damaging pain on important elements of the electorate.

Just what the voters think about all this is impossible to measure at this point. There are, of course, instant opinion polls generally supportive of the Republicans. But no one knowledgeable about politics believes these snapshots have any meaning for the long term.

The one thing that is clear is that the Republicans, simply because of the dimensions of their success Nov. 8, have raised high expectations they are now under intense pressure to fulfill -- just as President Clinton has been for the past two years.

It is the recognition of that reality that has caused grumbling among the rank and file about Gingrich's insistence he is going ahead with his book contract. Even if the speaker's dealings with publisher Rupert Murdoch were as innocent as he claims, it has become plain that there is enough of an appearance of wrongdoing to feed the pervasive skepticism in the electorate about all politicians.

There is reason to wonder whether the Democrats gain anything from hitting those nerves in the Gingrich case. It may be, as some Republicans argue, that they are projecting an image as losers more interested in getting their revenge than in dealing with the important issues facing the Congress.

But those Democrats who watched Gingrich savage them for much of the 1980s cannot be expected to leave it alone. Giving Newt a pass on this one would be an unnatural act.

The more serious problem for the Republicans is that even if they are allowed to proceed with their "Contract with America," they are going to find it much harder to deliver than they suggested it would be in the post-election euphoria.

It is already apparent, for example, that there are sharp divisions among the Republicans on the terms of the balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution they are committed to passing -- most obviously over whether there should be a requirement for a three-fifths majority to pass any tax increases. "If we don't have that," one Republican conservative said, "it's a deal-breaker for me."

There is also some stiff resistance from Republican governors who have visions of the federal budget being balanced by loading the states with more responsibilities and costs.

The most intractable problem for the Republicans, however, is the same one that has faced Congress for 15 years now -- how to reduce the deficit without causing that politically unacceptable pain. It is a problem made vastly more imposing, moreover, by their insistence that they can turn the trick without touching the sacrosanct Social Security program and while reducing taxes on the middle class.

The hard truth is that, with a few exceptions, the politicians here are unwilling to tell the truth about the budget. The money simply isn't there to do the things they promise without slashing at Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans' benefits, as well as the defense budget. All the talk about "trimming the fat" and doing away with "waste and inefficiency" is exaggeration.

They could wipe out a half-dozen departments and cut out all federal spending for welfare, education, the arts, public broadcasting and agriculture and still not get even close to the targets.

So it is one thing for the Republicans to say they have a mandate for radical change in the way the government spends the taxpayers' money but quite another to summon the political will to inflict pain. The saving grace for the Republicans, if there is one, is that the Democrats don't have any fresh answers either.

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