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NEWS ANALYSIS : GOP’s Election Agenda Rests on Risky Tactics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They lost on crime and appear to have prevailed on health. But in their partisan and sometimes ugly battle against President Clinton’s legislative program this month, the Republicans have racked up more than roll-call victories.

By aggressively attacking the priorities of the President and his Democratic allies, the Republicans have sharpened their own midterm election agenda and heightened the visibility of two possible presidential candidates, Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas.

Their maneuvers grew from a high-risk strategy that turned conventional political wisdom on its head: They came to believe that the electorate is more wary of what Clinton and congressional Democrats might do than they are of legislative gridlock and Republican partisanship that blocks federal action on health care and crime.

Whether this strategy was wise--or, as the Democrats contend, a blunder likely to enrage voters--will be decided in a battle for public opinion that already has begun.

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Even before the Senate handed Clinton his 61-38 crime bill victory Thursday evening, Republicans were vowing to prove that the real issue is runaway government. Just as firmly, Democrats were asserting that they will show it is a new and dangerous brand of minority-party obstructionism that has hogtied Congress through a steamy Washington August.

Some Republican strategists asserted that the issue--epitomized by the debate over “pork” spending in the $30-billion crime bill--could be decisive in their battle to regain control of the Senate and to win perhaps two dozen seats in the House. It would particularly help challengers in congressional elections, they said.

“We will have some examples--they will look good on a 30-second spot,” Dole vowed on Thursday, as he conceded defeat on the bill. Across the aisle, Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), the Senate majority leader, was promising that Democrats will show voters that they have taken over the crime-fighting issue.

White House officials have been privately fuming at what they see as the Republican attitude that congressional opposition to Clinton has become a risk-free proposition. According to their view, the Republicans believe that, if Clinton proposals fail, they won’t get blamed and, if he wins, he won’t get credit.

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“It really does undercut our system of government when, regardless of the substance of an issue . . . a party decides to just take a position in opposition to it for solely partisan purposes,” White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta lamented at a meeting with reporters Friday.

Republicans say their target is not all legislation, just bad legislation. But in a newsletter this week, Republican strategist Bill Kristol declared: “Republicans can only make progress in reframing the national political debate in ways that benefit our party and its principles if we are willing to endure charges of partisanship and gridlock.”

Gramm said in an interview that in the face of charges of obstructionism he is as comfortable as “Br’er Rabbit in the brier patch.”

Republicans gave other signals that the crime bill fight is only beginning. Dole vowed that his team will continue to fight against spending in the legislation over the next few years in congressional appropriations battles.

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And GOP strategists were talking of plans to bludgeon the Democrats with the crime bill next year, if the crime rate does not decline.

“Some Republican (Capitol) Hill staffer has probably already called the Justice Department for crime rate statistics to use as a baseline,” said Jim Pinkerton, a former Ronald Reagan and George Bush aide who now lectures at George Washington University here.

Both sides can claim some evidence that the public sees things their way.

The polls continue to show that crime is the nation’s top concern and that Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats for holding up action in Congress.

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“Crime is the No. 1 issue with voters and now the numbers are swinging strongly in the Democrats’ direction,” said Tony Coelho, the former House Democratic official who is now advising the national party.

Yet there have been increasing hints in recent months that the public’s anxieties about Clinton have deepened to the point where many think that a little gridlock may not be such a bad thing.

Surveys have shown increasing public anxiety about the Democrats’ health care plan.

In addition, there seems to have been a reversal of the view by the public about the desirability of having one party control both the White House and Congress.

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A survey conducted last spring by the Virginia firm American Viewpoint showed that by a 60% to 34% margin, the public believed that it was preferable to have different parties controlling the two branches of government.

In July, 1993, respondents said by a 48% to 36% margin that it would be better for the same party to control the White House and Congress.

Some Democrats have speculated that the Republicans’ real agenda as they dragged out the crime bill debate was to run out the clock on the even more complicated debate over health care.

Certainly, Republicans had to worry about the prospect of Clinton ending the summer with victories on the crime bill, progress on the new global trade agreement and positive votes in the House and Senate on the health bill, said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento).

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“The three would have given the President significant momentum,” Matsui said.

Not all analysts believe that the Republicans offered convincing evidence of their charge that the crime bill was shot through with wasteful spending aimed primarily at reelecting Democrats.

“The public is receptive to that argument, but I don’t think they made it,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst in Washington. “I kept waiting for all the examples but they never came.”

Republican analysts believe that their outspoken opposition to the Clinton health and crime bills is likely to give Dole and Gramm a boost in the crowded Republican presidential field.

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While Gramm’s more strident and ideological statements likely turned off more moderate voters, it will have a greater appeal to the conservatives he needs to mobilize if his long-odds effort is to make headway, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said.

“That’s what he needs to jump-start a campaign,” McInturff said.


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