Republicanism: stronger outside the Beltway

April 07, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- If you ask Tom Ridge to identify an issue his fellow Republicans in Washington might use to nationalize the congressional election campaign next year, he is stuck for an answer.

It is not he lacks political perspicacity. After 12 years in the House of Representatives and now two as governor of Pennsylvania, he is a ringwise politician. And a successful one: Looking ahead to a campaign for re-election next year, he enjoys approval ratings above 60 percent. Already has put together a $10 million-plus campaign fund. At this stage no formidable Democratic is challenger on the horizon.

But Governor Ridge recognizes that at the national level his party is hard-pressed now to project the positive image Republicans enjoyed when they captured both houses of Congress three years ago.

Part of the problem, he says, is that ''a lot of issues have been co-opted'' by President Clinton and that the momentum of the Contract With America in 1994 has been replaced by a ''complete vacuum.'' Where there was energy, he says, there is now at least the appearance of inertia.

There are also what he calls ''a couple of crosscurrents'' in Republican thinking in Washington -- meaning issues on which there are clear differences. One obvious split is between those who differ on whether cutting taxes or balancing the budget should have the highest priority. Another is over how the party should position itself on campaign-finance reform.

Striking to any outsider is the difference between the drift among Republicans in Congress and the strong political positions held by so many Republican governors -- such as, in addition to Mr. Ridge, George W. Bush of Texas, Christine Whitman of New Jersey, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, George Pataki of New York and John Engler of Michigan.

To some degree, this difference is product of the institutional differences. Congress passes bills; governors are obliged to deal with problems directly. ''Never in my 12 years in Congress,'' says Mr. Ridge, ''was I terribly worried about how [a congressional action] would be carried out. Governors . . . have to see the customers face-to-face. . . . [Congressmen) don't deal face-to-face with the taxpayer.''

Walking the plank

Too, governors don't have the time or the patience for ideological arguments when their constituents are worried about schools and the environment. You don't see the state executives walking the plank over issues like abortion rights and gun control, as so many House Republicans still seem determined to Republicans generally, Tom Ridge argues, must soften their image as a party that is too preoccupied with financial costs when dealing with such issues as education, the environment and welfare reform. ''We have to put much more of a human face on what we're trying to do,'' he says.

Mr. Ridge and other Republican governors have been helped immeasurably by the health of the economy and the consequent high level of tax revenues. Unemployment in Pennsylvania is 4.7 percent, a half-point below the national figure, which has not often been the case.

And Mr. Ridge is enjoying the prospect of a substantial budget surplus going into his re-election campaign. The problem he faces now is trying to prevent state legislators from using that prospective surplus for their own favorite programs rather than saving for the downturn in the economy that is inevitable.

Looking ahead to the election year, he says with a small smile, ''I don't want to have to raise taxes.''

The governor seems to have insulated himself on the campaign-finance issue by providing continuing disclosure of who is giving what. ''Most people,'' he says, ''think the best antiseptic is knowledge of the source [of contributions]. Let the sun shine in.''

Governor Ridge's success in Pennsylvania is interesting because this is the largest of the swing states in presidential elections. He has shown that a moderately conservative Republican can prosper politically here, even if Bob Dole could ,, not.

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

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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