Republicans face up to their divisions while Clinton savors the run
When the U.S. Congress returned from a 10-day recess on April 15, the Republican majority seemed set to get its conservative revolution back on track. Publicly, the majority mood that day was upbeat. “Our momentum looks impossible for the Democrats to overcome,” crowed the national Republican congressional committee, predicting November election gains. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, refreshed by a Florida vacation after clinching his party’s presidential nomination in a bruising bout of primary elections, confidently claimed to be more trustworthy than his Democratic opponent. “If you had to leave your children with Bob Dole or Bill Clinton,” he told Pittsburgh voters on a campaign stop, “I think you’d probably leave your children with Bob Dole.”
Within three days, the confidence began to unravel. Within three weeks, leadership blunders and defections on key congressional votes exposed backbiting and disarray in party ranks. Republicans openly bickered among themselves over a long list of issues: abortion, the minimum wage, the budget, immigration, the blue-collar vote and gas prices. Revolution activists,
including House caucus chairman John Boehner, sniped publicly at both Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Revolution cheerleaders were suddenly embittered critics. “It has long been hard to come up with a good reason to vote for Bob Dole in November,” wrote commentator Douglas Bandow, a senior fellow at the right-
wing Cato Institute in Washington. “It is increasingly hard to come up with a good reason to vote for a Republican Congress in November.”
By last week, as the campaign calendar for the Nov. 5 elections entered its final six months, Dole
and Gingrich struggled to get a grip on Congress and wrest control of the political agenda away from the ascendant Clinton. The Republican leaders faced a formidable hurdle. National opinion polling showed Clinton swamping Dole by 53 per cent to 28 per cent, Dole having dropped from 40 per cent a month earlier to join Gingrich at an approval rating of less than 30 per cent. Clinton’s 25-point lead prompted anxiety in the White House over peaking too soon. “The President is very concerned about it,” said spokesman Mike McCurry. “He admonishes the staff all the time to remember that fortunes change with lightning speed in politics.
Any time anyone says the word ‘polls’ to him, he says, ‘Greg Norman [the golfer blew a big lead in the final round of the April Masters tournament].’ ” But the way to a Republican recovery is strewn with hazards. Many are traps set by Clinton, but the
roughest are within the party. The Republicans are split by a factional struggle between hardline conservatives and more moderate activists seeking to broaden the party’s appeal. That contest’s sharpest focus is exposed in a heated debate over abortion. The fight between pro-life and pro-choice advocates is a dispute that Dole and other party leaders have been trying quietly to resolve by compromise. The leadership aims to avoid a showdown at the mid-August party convention in San Diego, where Dole is to be formally anointed as presidential candidate. Instead, last week, party divisions over abortion seemed to harden. Four influential Republican state governors—New Jersey’s Christie Whitman, California’s Pete Wilson, New York’s George Pataki and William Weld of Massachussets—took the lead in a campaign to remove a strongly worded anti-abortion plank from the party platform. Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, personally espoused more moderate language that would emphasize persuasion over legal means to oppose abortions, including the removal of a commitment to outlaw abortion by constitutional amendment. Steadfastly against any change are anti-abortion organizations and party members who include Pat Buchanan, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who remains undeterred by Dole’s victory in the primaries. He says he will lead his support-
REPORT FROM WASHINGTON
As that argument rages, the congressional majority is frustrated by Clinton’s tactical offence—co-opting popular Republican policy items as his own, attaching Democratic trade-offs to Republican demands, adroitly performing a conciliatory role to remove the “extremist” edges of Republican legislation. Those manoeuvres gained Clinton and the Democratic minority in Congress a substantial victory in a six-month battle over the current year’s federal budget. The struggle, after twice forcing the U.S. government to close for lack of funding, spared key social programs from heavy spending restraints, saved other federal operations from abolition, cancelled plans to cut taxes on capital gains and closed in weary compromise on April 26—with a reduced budget deficit
ers against any attempt to modify the party’s anti-abortion policy at the convention. Said Reed last week: “Right now, I don’t think there will be any change in the abortion plank in San Diego.” In the course of the budget fight, the Democrats also stymied Republican efforts to salvage anything significant from the majority party’s languishing 1994 agenda, the Contract with America. That leaves them little to show the voters as exclusive achievements of the conservative revolution. Rubbing it in, the Democrats launched an offensive to increase the minimum wage. That was viewed by Republican leaders, and others, as a reward to organized labor for promising the Democrats electoral support. (The AFL-CIO labor umbrella body, which sat out the 1994 election but is under new leadership, is raising almost $50 million in a union levy to buy broadcast ads.) But groups of rebellious Republicans in both the House and the Senate embarrassed their leaders by supporting the wage proposal (a 21-per-cent increase in two stages to $5.15 [U.S.] an hour, about $7 Canadian). Some House Republicans, after labor ran targeted commercials denouncing them, even suggested a more generous raise. “The Republican leadership is to blame for this,” fumed Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute. “The whole rationale for the revolution has been lost.”
Regrouping, the Republican leaders counterattacked with a plan to roll back a 1993 Democratic increase in federal gasoline tax. They presented that as relief to motorists faced with increased costs at the pump. It would save just over three cents on the dollar if fully applied to reduce the average price of gas. Many energy analysts said they doubted whether motorists would receive the full benefit of a tax cut, and noted that prices are likely to decline anyway as supply catches up with demand in the summer. But Clinton last week agreed to go along with the tax repeal, as long as Congress also passed the minimum wage increase—without a Republican-proposed appendage authorizing worker-management teams separate from unions. As well, Congress must agree on a way to offset the loss of revenue from the gas tax rollback with spending cuts to prevent a multibillion-dollar increase in the budget deficit.
The deficit is a sensitive issue for the Republicans. The Contract with America’s centrepiece is a pledge to erase the annual federal budget shortfall by the year 2002, and outlaw deficits ever after by constitutional amendment. Republican leaders unveiled a new budget-balancing plan last week, a six-year program that is less austere in curbing federal services than Gingrich’s original seven-year plan. Clinton is also committed to the 2002 no-deficit deadline. But the two parties hold conflicting ideas on how to accomplish that. For one thing, Democrats resisted the contract’s plan to simultaneously reduce capital-gains and middle-class income taxes, offsetting the revenue losses by squeezing public welfare and other social programs.
With the party’s first congressional majority in four decades now in electoral jeopardy, and the White House seeming beyond Dole’s grasp, some Republicans and normally staunch party allies are seeking out scapegoats. Mainly, they fault the Gingrich revolution for single-mindedly pursuing the reduction of government. “Republicans have become mesmerized, going back to their Contract with America, with the balanced budget,” scolded the deficithawk editorialists of The Wall Street Journal at a low point in the party’s April disarray. “It became their Holy Grail, and everything else had to be bent to accommodate it, even a pro-growth tax policy.” The editorial’s headline raised a warning question: “Minority Leader Gingrich?” The paper returned bluntly to the theme last week: “The Republicans’ balanced-budget Grail was a mistake.”
Clinton and his Democrats jubilantly agreed with that assessment at a gala Washington fund-raiser last week that pumped more than $16 million into their election treasury. At a dinner of the White House Correspondents Association a few nights earlier, Clinton picked up on Dole’s claim to be first in the people’s trust as a babysitter. “Say you were going on vacation for a couple of weeks,” the President speculated. ‘Who do you trust to water your plants—Bob Dole or Bill Clinton?” The pollsters have not yet examined that question. But on the babysitter issue, a Washington Post survey discovered that Clinton beats Dole by a ratio of 57 to 27. In fairness, that was before the poll respondents knew whether the minimum wage was going up—or whether the designated sitter would be the next President of the United States, or merely an also-ran. □
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