GOP in bind partly of its own making The GOP garrison in Congress listens more intently to enemies inside the Beltway than to friends on the outside.

October 20, 1998|By TONY SNOW

WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party is suffering a slow, tortuous descent into realism. It has learned the hard way that it cannot tangibly influence America's direction unless it holds the White House.

This explains the budget deal cut last week by the GOP and President Clinton. Republicans wanted tax cuts, school choice and the abolition of noxious or stupid government agencies. They wanted federal policy to place greater value on individual freedom than on bureaucratic reach. They got squat.

Fractious conservatives complained about the "cave and run" strategy, but ask yourself: What choice did Newt's Kids have? They could only have bought themselves more trouble. The president might have provoked another close-down of the government.

With less than three weeks before Election Day, neither party wanted to get involved in siege warfare, so politicians chose back-home pandering over hard bargaining in Washington.

It's probably for the best. Our democratic system moves glacially, if at all. This ensures the country will plod ahead on the basis of rough consensus, not caprice or force. It also means that Congress will disappoint us far more often than it inspires us.

That's especially true nowadays. We live in an astoundingly static time. Mr. Clinton has no standing as a visionary leader; he has no interest in the role. He will cut ribbons, play host at fund-raisers and attempt to give wide berth to comely interns, but that's it: no big ideas from him.

Disciplined Democrats

Still, the veto power enables him to frustrate bold thinking by the GOP, especially since Democrats remained shockingly disciplined on everything from partial-birth abortions to defending the president. Even if Republicans rack up sizable gains in the House and Senate on Nov. 2, they're still not likely to win a lot of veto override votes.

Unlike George Bush, who got knocked around by a Democratic Congress, Mr. Clinton has a keen grasp of executive power. He knows how to use every tool at his disposal. Despite his low standing on Capitol Hill, he has held Republicans at bay by using his bully pulpit to sow doubts about the GOP's moral probity.

While he operates effectively from a defensive position, Republicans seem bewildered by their own recent prosperity. Despite having won the ideological battle, they remain frightened and defensive. The GOP garrison in Congress listens more intently to enemies inside the Beltway than to friends on the outside. When adversity strikes, it doesn't pull together; it shatters into feuding clans.

Reagan's kids

Nevertheless, the next two weeks will force Ronald Reagan's heirs to embark on what amounts to a two-year campaign of self-definition. They will have to explain to Americans what the country would look like if the GOP was in control. They have to lay the foundation for their next presidential run.

This should be interesting. In the Reagan days, simple issues worked: lower taxes, smaller government, a vigorous national defense. The GOP considers itself somewhat fancier these days and so invests a lot of time and research not in policy but phraseology: Should it "privatize" Social Security or "personalize" This sort of dithering has created a certain unease among party regulars in flyover land. Right-wingers can't understand why their leaders have decided not to assail Mr. Clinton's misdeeds and character or mount a full-bore offensive on behalf of limited government.

In some ways, these complaints are predictable. Ideologues work themselves into a lather when politicians sell out, ignoring the fact that politics revolves around the art of the deal -- swapping a bit of purity on one issue for an inch of progress on another.

Right now, Republicans can do no better than inch ahead. They don't have the votes to run Washington. So they must bargain. The same goes for Mr. Clinton. Without the stimulus of a great threat or disaster, the GOP Congress and the Clinton White House have no choice but to dwell on the surface of things: all talk, no revolution.

Tony Snow is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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