Now GOP is party of big government

January 24, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- What sticks in their craw is the polls. The numbers are too large to swallow. The data is too tough to dice no matter how the knives are sharpened. Put this president in a Cuisinart and he comes out whole, bigger than ever.

Here is a man who's been impeached. He's on trial in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. Yet when the camera pans the seats at the State of the Union address, it's the Republicans who look dour and dyspeptic, as uncomfortable as actors in the Immodium-D ads.

And the morning after, his polls are elevated into that 76 percent stratosphere reserved for either our own mothers or the late Mother Teresa. Making his way to Buffalo, he tells the crowd there, "I thank you for one of the great days of my presidency."

One of the great days of his presidency? Week Two of an impeachment trial? It's enough to make the Death-of-Outrage crowd choke.

At this point, the hell-in-a-handbasket wedge of the Republican Party hates President Clinton's soccer-dad complexion as much as any Democrat ever hated Dick Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow.

They cannot believe that he is "getting away with it." Can't believe he still has the public's approval.

Never mind that many of them apparently got away with it. Never mind that the president's public humiliation has been more than an embarrassing moment. Never mind that we don't "approve" of Mr. Clinton; we just refuse to disapprove.

This is a psychodrama played out on a national split-screen, or so the cliche-makers tell us. The main characters are two Bill Clintons. On one screen, Hail to the Chief. On the other screen, "a presidential perjurer" on trial.

The wonder, we are told, is how the "chief" keeps going. Surely if they hang onto that infamous DNA sample, someday they will find a gene for resilience.

But this whole sorry mess hasn't just ripped apart the seams of one man's character. It's shown the split personality of the Republican Party as well.

In an astonishing sleight of hand, this impeachment process has turned the president of the United States into a victim of big government. It's turned the GOP into big government.

Mr. Clinton, commander in chief, is now seen as the little guy, the man who's private life was invaded by the big-bankroll feds. The Ken Starr Republicans are now seen as the Beltway hunting dogs. The party that ran against Washington is Washington.

For several long decades the fiscal and cultural conservatives kept the GOP aloft with two right wings. One wing of the party wanted to keep government out of your pocketbook, the other wanted to put government in your bedroom. One side talked taxes, the other talked morals. One wing signed up entrepreneurs, the other signed up religious crusaders. One worried about budget deficits, the other about abortion, homosexuality and creationism.

In this long year, the moralists finally took over the party image and maybe the party. Is this a rite of purification? Tom Katina of the American Conservative Union says, "The Republican Party has found its soul again."

Not that many years ago, former President George Bush made allies with the anti-abortion, family values crowd. But on Wednesday night even he waxed nostalgically in the Old Senate Chamber about the good old days when Washington had a certain bipartisan civility. Are the last happy Republicans only those who see 2000 A.D. not as an election year but as the Apocalypse?

There is a final split-screen today, one that may remain a more permanent political image. The two faces of government: good and bad.

All during this impeachment process, at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Clinton folks have issued a press release a day showing what government can do for you. If this is Tuesday it must be child-care credits.

Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Republicans are showing what government can do to you. If this is Wednesday, let's call Monica Lewinsky to the stand.

The GOP is now seen as the party of big, bad government. Try swallowing this number: In one poll this past week, only 32 percent of the American people said they trust Republicans to do a better job with the main problems the nation faces. Anybody hear the Grand Old Party gulp?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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