Now GOP may be party that's out of touch with nation

September 20, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- IN 1994, the Democrats lost control of Congress because the Republicans convinced the voters that after 40 years in charge they were out of touch with most ordinary Americans.

Today, only five years later, it is the Republicans who seem to be living in their own little world. Their primary role as the controlling party in both houses of Congress, it would appear, is to trash President Clinton. Dealing with voter concerns that might require legislation seems secondary at best.

Nowhere is this obsessive focus on the lame-duck president more apparent than in all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the Republicans over Mr. Clinton's decision to grant clemency to a dozen Puerto Rican nationalists with connections to the terrorist group FALN.

The authority to order clemency rests solely with the chief executive; there is no provision in the Constitution for Congress to play a role. The Republicans know this, of course, but they also think they know political gold when they see it. A president who returns terrorists to the streets is an easy target even if, as in this case, none of those freed was convicted of any terrorist act.

The best supporting evidence for their thesis is provided by, of all people, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In her new role as the likely Senate candidate from New York, she made a point of separating herself from a decision that her husband was accused of making to help her campaign with Puerto Rican voters. Figure that one out.

Lame duck disease

The president is also catching heat from some Democrats with a reputation for having finely tuned antennae. Both Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey jumped into the controversy by demanding that the president explain himself. It is no secret that Mr. Clinton is not only a lame duck, but also one held in low regard by most Americans. If you kick him, he is essentially powerless.

The Republican decision to go ballistic on the FALN case is part of a strategy for the 2000 election that has two main components. The first, clearly, is raking the administration over the coals at every opportunity. Thus, there are new inquiries about what happened at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, six years ago and about who in the White House was to blame for the wholesale chaos in the Russian banking system under Boris Yeltsin.

Looking to the future

The notion that these are issues on which Americans will decide an election next year is laughable on its face. There may be a few voters who will accept the dubious proposition that Vice President Al Gore mishandled the relationship with Mr. Yeltsin, but these issues are too arcane and complex to mean anything to most people concerned with their own lives. And, in most cases in which no incumbent is involved, presidential elections are about the future rather than the past.

The second main element of the Republican strategy seems to be tilting at political windmills. So last week they pushed through that $792 billion tax reduction plan they know cannot make it through the Senate and, if it did, cannot escape a certain veto. That gave them a chance to hold a press conference that was so empty of serious meaning that no one other than the most devoted cable channel surfers saw it.

There are issues of serious concern to many Americans, such as the condition of the public schools in many communities and the huge gaps in the health care system. But the politicians in Congress are sending the message they are more interested in nailing Bill Clinton for kowtowing to the Puerto Rican terrorists.

The message of the opinion polls is overwhelmingly negative: Americans don't believe their elected officials are doing serious work to deal with serious problems. Instead, in the view of the electorate, the nation's political representatives are far more interested in cheap political games that they think might save their skins next year.

By passing tax cuts solely as a public relations exercise and by braying about clemency when they have no authority to act, the Republicans are providing more evidence that the polls are right again.

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

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