Clinton's power envied by freshmen GOP yearns for a candidate who is a good speaker

January 27, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Bill Clinton is no longer irrelevant to the House Republican freshmen.

The Democratic president, who was ignored by the Republican-led Congress for most of last year as the would-be revolutionaries raced through their ambitious agenda, is now their chief obsession.

They believe that Mr. Clinton stole their momentum, stole their ideas, stole their thunder. As they debated at a meeting in Baltimore yesterday where to go from here, they wished openly that they had someone more like him on their side.

"I think that [desire] reflects a lot of frustration with the presidential candidates," said Rep. David M. McIntosh, an Indiana freshman. "The word across the country is that President Clinton did very well in the State of the Union speech the other night, and the response from Bob Dole wasn't well-received."

What the Republicans most admire about Mr. Clinton of course, is his office. They discovered, perhaps with surprise, that not only did he have veto power over their legislation but that he would actually use it.

"He is the most powerful man in the world, and he has been able to get his hand on the pause button" to halt the Republicans' "long march to a reconstructed civil government" in its tracks, House Majority Leader Dick Armey told the freshmen yesterday.

Indeed, with his veto power hanging over them, Mr. Clinton has forced the House Republicans to seek a series of halfway, stop-gap and largely symbolic measures that fall far short of their lofty goals of balancing the budget and shrinking the government.

If the rest of this term is to be devoted to battling with Mr. Clinton for the hearts and minds of American voters, the Republicans say they'd love to have a leader who speaks as effectively as the president to make their case.

"It's a serious problem," said Rep. James B. Longley Jr., a freshman Republican from Maine. "Our leaders don't understand the importance of communication."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose star power seemed to outshine even that of the president for much of last year, "is overworked and overexposed," Mr. Longley said. Burdened by an ethics investigation and a tendency to utter divisive remarks, the House speaker has "become too much of a focus," Mr. Longley said.

Mr. Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both Texas Republicans, share a dogmatic, in-your-face ideological style that feeds Democratic criticism that the Republicans are too "extreme," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, a freshman Republican from Florida.

As for Mr. Dole, the majority leader's performance after the State of the Union helped crystallize the fears of many Republicans that the 72-year-old Washington insider, the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, may not convey the right image to do battle with Mr. Clinton.

"You need a new CEO," Al Dunlop, chief executive officer of Scott Paper Co., told the Republicans at a panel discussion yesterday. "And it's not Bob Dole. Bob Dole is yesterday."

What most amazes and confounds the House Republican freshmen about Mr. Clinton is what they call his willingness to adjust his politics and positions to the circumstances of the moment. For a group that prides itself on consistency, even rigidity, the president's casual flexibility seems dishonest.

"He has no character," said Rep. Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican. Like many of her colleagues, she considers Mr. Clinton deceitful for telling Americans this week that he wants welfare reform and a balanced budget, after having vetoed Republican bills designed to accomplish both goals. The president said those bills were too harsh.

"It's like we have a dysfunctional partner," she said.

To the freshman Republicans, it is both heartening and galling that Mr. Clinton has embraced so many of their issues, such as a line-item presidential veto, tax cuts, welfare reform and, most notably, a smaller federal government.

"He gave a phenomenal State of the Union address; I think I could have written it," said Rep. Mark Foley of Florida. "The problem is his follow-through."

Rep. Steve Chabot, a freshman from Ohio, said he was startled to hear that the president has apparently appropriated a 1994 Chabot campaign slogan: "Working hard for working people."

"That was on all my bumper stickers and literature last year, and now I hear the Clinton campaign is using it in New Hampshire," Mr. Chabot said.

It's probably just a coincidence, the congressman said. "But now I have to decide whether I'm going to use it this year. I don't want anybody to think I copied Clinton."

Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett warned the freshmen at a dinner Thursday night not to be overwhelmed by the president.

"Bill Clinton is gifted oratorically," Mr. Bennett said. "He is extremely deft, he is extremely, extremely shameful. Do not expect any more of him than that. Two years ago, this man wanted a health care plan that would take over one-seventh of the American economy. Now he announces to us that the era of big government is over. Did he just learn this?"

The freshmen say they plan to expose what they call the president's inconsistencies by continuing to pass proposals that says he wants -- those to reform welfare and balance the budget, among others -- and daring him to veto them.

"The American people are going to have to do their part, too," said Rep. Mark W. Neumann of Wisconsin. "If they want this stuff, they are just going to have to vote for people who are going to give it to them."

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