Young Republican senators aim, fire at themselves

March 13, 1995|By Mona Charen

THIS WEEK's "Shoot Yourself in the Foot" award goes to the Young Turk Republican senators who called for the head of Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

Did it sting to have Senator Hatfield cast the deciding vote to kill the balanced budget constitutional amendment? Of course. Senator Hatfield was the lone Republican to oppose the measure. If Republican solidarity on the issue had been complete, the bill would have passed despite the 33 Democratic senators who voted "no."

But the spin on an event is key, and that is where the conservative firebrands made a mistake. After the amendment was defeated, the switch labeled "political accountability" should have been thrown. Instead, Republicans kept the focus of postmortems on the one GOP hold out, thereby losing a chance to pin the loss squarely where it belongs -- on the Democrats.

Six Democratic senators switched their positions from pro to con. Mostly, they were senators who do not face re-election in 1996. The Republicans could have made hay of the fact that those senators, like Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., who are about to face the voters in 1996 switched from "no" in 1994 to "yes" in 1995, while those who had just been returned to the Senate in 1994, like Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., have now reversed themselves and voted "no."

Indeed, the Democrats were nervous enough about how their no vote on the amendment would look that they held strategy sessions to plan how to present the vote as something other than a simple refusal to cut spending. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Democrats were at pains to say that they do indeed favor balanced budgets, they simply were opposed to constitutionalizing the issue.

Little did they suspect that their efforts would be unnecessary. The Republicans did them the huge favor of making the issue of the day: Will they or won't they punish Sen. Mark Hatfield? Will they strip him of the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee?

Even the switch in party allegiance by Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was overshadowed by the flap over Senator Hatfield.

A group of conservative activists sent Majority Leader Bob Dole a letter calling upon him to discipline the wayward Oregonian. "Your allies in this continuing debate find it inexcusable that the current distinguished chairman of the Appropriations Committee chose to break with his own party and vote against the balanced budget amendment," they wrote. "This was not just a vote against the party. This was a vote for business as usual, a vote for a one-way ticket to national bankruptcy."

That may or may not be true. If almost two-thirds of the Congress was willing to pass an amendment requiring a balanced budget, then at least a majority ought to be willing to take the steps necessary to balance it? Right? The balanced budget amendment was basically a recovery program for congressmen and senators addicted to spending other people's money. The amendment said, "Stop me before I spend again."

But back to politics. Perhaps the conservative activists and senators who called for Mark Hatfield's head on a platter were not thinking clearly about how the issue would play in the press because they had other fish to fry.

It is quite likely that some of them were aiming their fire not truly at Senator Hatfield, but at Bob Dole. By demanding that Mr. Dole deal harshly with Mr. Hatfield, the activists were hoping to put Mr. Dole on the spot.

If he declined to strip Mr. Hatfield of the appropriations chairmanship, they could accuse him of being too squishy to win the presidential nomination. "It's a big test for Dole," said Grover Norquist, one of the signers of the letter.

But as it turned out, even some of the most conservative senators, like Phil Gramm of Texas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, declined to discipline Senator Hatfield.

They know that his was a vote of conscience (however misguided) and there is little point in transforming one of the few remaining liberal Republicans into a martyr figure.

If Republicans hope to hold their gains and win the White House in 1996, they will have to start firing more accurately at the Democrats, instead of at one another.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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