Bumbling leadership leaves GOP grumbling

May 28, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The sound you hear coming from Capitol Hill these days is the muttering of Republicans complaining about their leadership. The opinion polls show the Democrats at a distinct advantage right now, so someone has to take the blame.

In the Senate, the immediate target is Majority Leader Trent Lott, who is being blamed for the clumsy handling of the gun control legislation that allowed Vice President Al Gore to play the hero and cast the deciding vote for the key bill. Republicans, who suspect that vote may show up in some campaign commercials next year, point out that the tie could have been avoided by asking some politically safe Republican to switch on the bill.

As it played out, the Democrats were delighted with another piece of evidence suggesting Mr. Lott is not politically attuned to anyone except the 54 other Republicans he leads.

In the House, there is grumbling about Speaker Dennis Hastert's management of the various measures expressing support for the war in Kosovo. As this one played out, the several votes taken together projected the image of the Republicans taking a partisan line against President Clinton on a question of war and peace. That is never sound politics.

The House Republicans have a particular reason for concern, of course, because they enjoy only a five-seat majority that might well be lost if the vote were taken today and the opinion polls are reasonably accurate. The latest surveys show Democrats about 10 percent ahead of Republicans on the general question of party preference for Congress.

The overall picture -- again assuming the polls are reasonably reflective -- is one of the Republicans on the "wrong" side of a whole list of issues, including gun control, campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage and regulating health maintenance organizations. Meanwhile, they have not been able to fashion what amounts to a firm party position on their own first priority, tax reduction. Some Republicans, moreover, are already looking ahead to the end of the year and another showdown with President Clinton over how much to spend on which programs within the tight budget caps. They recognize that the president will enjoy far more leverage because they will never again use their ultimate weapon and shut down the government. There are still vivid memories of how their constituents reacted the last time the government was shut down four years ago.

The fundamental problem for the Republicans, however, goes far beyond the unimpressive performances of Mr. Lott and Mr. Hastert in the current session of Congress. The problem is simply that the party no longer has a clear set of goals with which to be identified. The end of the Cold War has taken the communist threat off the table. And the balanced federal budget, coupled with the booming economy and resulting tide of revenues, has taken much of the relevance out of the traditional demands for less spending.

The Republicans have been thrown on the defensive even on issues they have "owned" in the past -- the most obvious being crime. Polls show voters put more trust in Mr. Clinton and the Democrats than in the GOP to handle law enforcement questions.

Meanwhile, with many voters the Republicans have become identified foremost with social issues that may be very important to a few but are not likely to be decisive nationally. For example, like their counterparts in the Senate this year, many House Republicans seem to think their mission in life is helping the gun lobby reverse the ban on automatic weapons. Others search militantly for opportunities to voice their opposition to abortion rights by putting new strings on old programs.

It is true, of course, that the next congressional election is still 17 months away. And it is equally true that the outcome of the congressional races may be influenced importantly by the results of the presidential election, where the GOP prospect appears somewhat brighter now.

Moreover, there is no way to predict how Americans will view the two parties in the context of issues that may not even have emerged yet. There are already signs, for example, of deterioration in the support for Mr. Clinton's conduct of the war in the Balkans.

For the moment, nonetheless, the congressional Republicans are unhappy with their leaders -- and with good reason.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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