1996: a presidential year at home Clinton-Dole contest looms: Gingrich one of key factors in ideological battle.

January 03, 1996

UNDER THE GUISE of budget negotiations in Washington, the 1966 presidential election year is fully underway. Two of the three principals -- President Clinton and Senate majority leader Bob Dole -- are likely to be facing one another when the Nov. 5 polling date finally arrives. The other party to the budget talks, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was by all odds the dominant American politician of 1995, the self-styled revolutionist who set the terms of a national debate that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole will have to carry on.

Whether Mr. Gingrich is destined to be a flashing comet or an enduring figure on the political scene is strictly a post-election question. For the moment, he is the protagonist-of-choice so far as the Democrats are concerned and an increasing liability in the minds of many Republicans. Mr. Dole would probably be elated if the speaker and his band of intransigent freshmen would finally succumb to a quick deal ending the budget impasse and getting the government back to work. Mr. Clinton may not feel such urgency. His stock has been rising ever since he transmogrified from eager compromiser to stout defender of Medicare and Medicaid.

Eventually, Mr. Dole (if he is indeed the Republican nominee) will have to define himself and his policies in ways that will free him from the Gingrich yoke. But his options are limited, given the rightward drift of his party. No wonder the president is described as chortling at intra-Republican stresses come to the surface.

Yet Mr. Clinton has a long way to go if he hopes to be the first Democrat elected to a second full term since Franklin D. Roosevelt. His own personal foibles, accentuated by the won't-go-away Whitewater affair, and the risks implicit in his bold Bosnia gamble could send him tumbling on the public opinion charts to the lows of a year ago. There is also the matter of what kind of a budget agreement he will have to make with the Republicans and whether he or his opponents will be blamed for any untoward effects it may have on the U.S. economy.

If this is to be a Clinton-Dole election, the issues now on the agenda as a result of the Gingrich phenomenon are as fundamental as they come: What is the proper role of the federal government in the U.S. political system? Should Washington or state and local authorities be finally responsible for the safety net to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens? To what extent should government, rather than the private sector, control the direction of the economy and the lives of individual citizens?

There is a certain irony that two candidates as instinctively accommodating as Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole find themselves cast as warriors in a highly ideological battle. The ambiguity in the situation is a constant invitation to a third-party candidacy.

Perhaps the lines may blur if the Kansas senator wins his party's nomination and starts moving the GOP more toward the center. But such high-profile issues are not solely of Mr. Gingrich's making. They reflect the turmoil in American society, the growth of a staggering national debt and uncertainty about the U.S. role in a world without the Soviet bogeyman.

As the presidential contest unfolds, voters will also be electing all 435 members of the House of Representatives and no less than 33 of the 100 senators. The Senate appears to be a lock for continued GOP control, what with eight of the 15 Democrats up for re-election choosing retirement (as compared to only four of 18 Republicans.) The makeup of the House, which went Republican in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, has punsters puzzled. Much will depend on the presidential outcome and how the budget fight turns out.

The 1996 election will not be a Tweedledee and Tweedledum affair, and this is to be welcomed. The American public will have real choices to make over personalities, policies, principles and even, in a Clinton-Dole duel, generations. Bill Clinton would be the youngest president ever to be re-elected; Bob Dole would be the oldest first-time winner.

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