Republicans take risky turn on tobacco for a shot at Democrats

May 01, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- If the political contest over tobacco legislation were a prize fight, the Republican leaders of the House might be suspected of taking a dive.

In the past week, these Republicans have gone out of their way to project an image of themselves as siding with the tobacco companies at a time when opinion polls show the cigarette makers clearly in disrepute because of evidence that they have tried to encourage young people to smoke.

The strategy, if it can be called that, seems to be to change the nature of the debate so that it centers on the taxes that would be produced by a tobacco bill and on the Democrats' plans to spend the money on government programs.

As one influential Republican, Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, put it, this would be a case of "levying a tax on people, in many instances poor people, to pay for other things."

But this attempt to make the bill another example of "tax and spend" policies of the Democrats ignores the fact that in this case the higher taxes would be paid by smokers.

By contrast, President Clinton and his allies are keeping the focus on the purpose of the tobacco legislation -- to discourage teen-age smoking.

And that is a goal that has widespread approval from Americans, including many smokers who don't want their children to follow their example.

The Republicans have seen how Mr. Clinton can exploit this kind of issue. And they are trying to avoid having their candidates for re-election in November thrown on the defensive as their presidential nominee Bob Dole was positioned two years ago, after he questioned whether tobacco is addictive.

But talking about how the yield of the higher tax would be used is not the road to political success. Although it is true that Americans generally oppose more government spending on new programs, it is doubtful they can be persuaded to see this issue in those terms rather than as a case of protecting the young.

The Republicans are at a special disadvantage, moreover, because they have received far more campaign money from the tobacco companies than have the Democrats. It is not hard to imagine how Democratic candidates might exploit this history in the midterm elections.

Another major point of the Republicans' contention is that the legislation being considered would amount to too much government regulation of the private sector. That argument also has some sting in most cases, but it is hard to see voters being very concerned about the poor little cigarette companies.

Nonetheless, there was Speaker Newt Gingrich sending a letter to other Republicans last week in which he assailed Mr. Clinton's "thinly veiled effort to use the massive tobacco taxes to pay for his liberal agenda of new government programs, more spending and bigger bureaucracy."

And there was Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip, writing that "limousine liberals, by forcing their vision of a healthy lifestyle on American workers, will cost them billions of dollars."

Not all Republicans have bought their leaders' stale arguments. The bill that is at the center of negotiations was written, after all, by a Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

And some other House Republicans of prominence appear prepared to pass tough legislation if most of the tax yield is used for tax relief or deficit reduction rather than new spending. Those questions are at the heart of negotiations under way between the White House and the measure's sponsors in Congress.

The one thing that is clear is that there is a majority in both chambers for some kind of action to reduce teen-age smoking. ZTC Many Republicans as well as Democrats recognize that the tobacco issue is one that can attract the attention of the voters in a year without major economic concerns.

Some Republicans who support the Gingrich approach believe that the turnout in November is likely to be so small that, as usually happens in such cases, the proportion of Republicans who actually cast their ballots will be higher than that of Democrats. Their theory is that these party regulars will be more susceptible to traditional arguments about "tax and spend" Democrats.

But the Republicans hold a margin of 11 seats in the House, and, except in the tobacco states, incumbents are sure to be on the defensive if their constituents see them as supporters of cigarette makers and teen-age smoking.

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

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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