Think partisanship was bad during the elections? You ain't seen nothin' yet


WASHINGTON -- You are hearing a lot of loose talk these days from both the White House and Republican leaders about trying to find ''common ground'' in the next two years. What a hoot.

It is true, of course, that the message from the electorate, to the extent that it could be deciphered at all, is that the voters are sick and tired of partisan bickering and deadlock.

But confrontation between President Clinton and the Republican Congress is inevitable. There are too many areas where the political imperatives argue for partisanship.

The single most pressing issue facing the federal government today is how to alter the Medicare system to protect health benefits for older Americans without bankrupting the government. Everyone on both sides knows this is going to inflict some pain, so who gets the blame?

The White House would prefer a bipartisan commission that would write a formula for reducing the growth of Medicare costs, then present that proposal for an up or down vote by Congress. Everyone in both parties would share the responsibility and the blame. It has even been suggested that the ideal person to lead such a commission would be Bob Dole, now that he has time on his hands and no further partisan ambitions.

But Republicans are outraged by the way the president and other Democrats exploited the issue in the 1996 campaign, successfully enough to give Mr. Clinton both Florida and Arizona, states with disproportionate numbers of retired voters. Republicans will be wary about cooperating with the Democrats now. And they obviously have no reason to help the president or the Democrats on Capitol Hill to get off the hook on Medicare.

Whatever overtures the White House might make toward Congress inevitably will be tempered by the certainty that the Republicans will mount new investigations of Mr. Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House staff and the Democratic National Committee. A principal rallying point for conservatives in the campaign was the contention that the administration is shot through with corruption. Mr. Clinton lost some ground in the final two weeks as the charges of illegal fund-raising gained attention.

How to avoid backlash

Republicans can read the polls, so they know that the voters have many reservations about the president's character, even if they preferred him to Senator Dole. That means that even partisan investigations may not elicit a backlash if they expose some wrongdoing that voters can understand.

Thus Mr. Clinton is not dealing from political strength as he begins his four years as a lame-duck president. Republicans will reason that if he was unable to elect a Democratic Congress while on the ballot himself this year, he is not someone they have to fear in the midterm elections of 1998.

Nor is he leading a Democratic Party that is unified and comfortable with his stewardship. Liberals in the House were clearly unhappy about the welfare-reform bill the president signed earlier this year. There is probably little chance it can be modified in the next two years, as Mr. Clinton had hinted he would do if the Democrats controlled Congress.

The Republicans, of course, labor under their own burdens, most obviously the fact that their most prominent leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich, is so unpopular with the voters. Congressmen already looking ahead to another election only two years away are not going to be inclined to walk through a wall for a leader who is a political albatross.

Republican leaders realize there are limits to how far they can go in trying to have things their own way. One of the lessons of the campaign was that the shutdown of the federal government last winter had far more impact on the voters than anyone in Washington understood at the time -- and that Republicans took the blame.

On some issues, of course, it will prove prudent for the president and the Republicans to find that common ground. But anyone who expects some golden era of bipartisan cooperation is kidding himself. Another election is, after all, just around the corner.

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

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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