Among the elephants, a classic clash of politics and ideology

April 29, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The final Republican tumble to President Clinton on the fiscal 1996 budget, ending seven months of bickering marked by two government shutdowns, is an exclamation point to a remarkable political turnaround since the GOP takeover of Congress only 18 months ago.

The Republican concessions on money for education, environmental cleanup, crime-fighting and job training underscore Mr. Clinton's upper hand in the drawn-out budgetary process, once he decided to dig in his heels and wield his veto power. That enabled him to cast himself as the country's protector against, as he put it, an over-zealous Republican congressional majority bent on going too far in slashing government.

Once the president was successful in pinning the blame on the congressional Republicans for the highly unpopular shutdowns, the GOP leadership and many Republican members, fearful of punishment in the 1996 elections, were on the defensive, while Democratic solidarity in Congress behind Mr. Clinton, missing after the GOP sweep of 1994, enabled them to grasp political openings.

Most conspicuously, the Democrats have resurrected the issue of a minimum-wage increase to embarrass the Republicans, who woodenly have clung to the argument that such an increase will cost jobs, not improve the lot of Americans on the low end of the wage scale.

Senate Majority Leader and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, unlike some other Republican leaders, has recognized that the political appeal of the wage boost in this time of perceived economic insecurity is likely to be much more significant in this election year than the economic rationale against it. While agreeing with conservative economists that a minimum-wage boost is the wrong answer to the poverty problem in the country, Senator Dole commented recently that ''you'll never explain it to anybody.''

This pragmatic position clearly upsets the ideologues of the right in his party, led by House Majority Leader Dick Armey. It reminds them that their prospective standard-bearer in the November election is really not one of them as a true believer of the gospel according to St. Newt. With Speaker Gingrich now overshadowed by Senator Dole, the Republican ''revolution'' that was going to change Washington seems stalled, with uncertain leadership.

Cut GOP losses

Senator Dole's comment clearly indicates that he'd prefer to swallow the minimum-wage increase, cut GOP losses on the issue and move on to more fertile political fields. But Messrs. Gingrich and Armey have insisted on continuing to buck the tide, refusing to support a vote on minimum wage in the House and instead suggesting some vague alternative -- while Mr. Dole twists in the wind.

The result, on this issue as well as on the pace of restraining government spending, is a classic clash between politics and ideology. President Clinton and the Democrats, understanding that they hold the more politically appealing positions right now, are gleefully casting the Republicans as heartless extremists. Meanwhile, Messrs. Gingrich and Armey cling to their ideological rigidity, no matter what the cost to their supposed leader, Senator Dole.

As they do so, gloom gathers increasingly over the Dole candidacy and chances for the ultimate step in the Republican revolution -- the takeover of the White House. It begins to look as if the leading revolutionists like Messrs. Gingrich and Armey don't care enough about getting Senator Dole there to trim their zeal and fall in behind him between now and November.

Unless they are willing to do so, and unless Senator Dole produces an agenda of his own that can rally his fellow Republicans behind him, President Clinton and a freshly unified Democratic Party seem on their way to stalling the GOP revolution of 1994 in its tracks.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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