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Capitol Mayhem : When a Republican Congress faces a weak Democratic President, things can get ugly. And there’s trouble roiling within the GOP as well. Will the ‘Contract with America’ be writeen in Republican blood?

<i> Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor." His new book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)</i>

The 104th Congress will probably be like the 5 o’clock TV news: More blood than you want to see, more often than you’d prefer.

Unfortunately, the United States is heading into this century’s third face-off between a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. And, despite Thursday’s peace talks, it’s conceivable that the interplay of President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, two of the nation’s least-esteemed major politicians, could make the previous fights look like a rerun of “The Love Boat.”

The GOP’s vaunted “contract with America” can’t be simply dismissed with snickering Mafia analogies. It was a successful campaign ploy, and because skeptical voters now insist the Republicans actually pass it, not just debate it, the stakes are rising. What’s worrisome is that the contract could also be a potential time bomb--not only for the Congress but also for the 1996 Republican presidential race, and even the economy.

This proposal, a 10-point blueprint that supporters say will cure everything--including warts--is principally the brainchild of Gingrich. He and his 230 colleagues just elected to the House of Representatives cherish it as the flag that allegedly flew over their November capture of the Washington Bastille.

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This fervor in the House is not much exaggerated. But it is only partly shared by the 54 Republicans in the Senate. Many of these grandees served in the Senate GOP majority of 1980-86, and enough are past and wannabe presidential candidates--including Bob Dole of Kansas, Phil Gramm of Texas, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and others--to think they now smell the same ambition in Gingrich. This is part of the growing internecine tension.

Senate Majority Leader Dole--saluted in opinion surveys as 1) the front-runner for the 1996 GOP nomination and 2) the preference of Americans as the leader of the GOP by a huge margin over Gingrich--doesn’t want to see the new Speaker fall on his face, because that would undercut the entire GOP. But it does serve Dole’s purpose to see Gingrich get a black eye or even break a leg from time to time--enough to keep him from parlaying House (and contract) success into a crusading bid for the presidency next year.

Besides, the longer Gingrich comes across as a smart-aleck with an even lower trust rating than Clinton, the longer Dole can continue his extraordinary emergence as the nation’s new political father figure. He’s now viewed as a sort of grizzled Kansas high-school principal, separating 9th-grade Republicans in the House from Democratic sophomores in the White House. Since this three-way comparison began in the polls six weeks ago, the Bobster’s numbers have climbed like Jack’s beanstalk.

The Senate, better than the House, understands that whatever the hoopla of the first hundred days, the instant-solutions mind-set of the contract could be a political and economic problem by the second or third hundred days. Next year’s elections are going to be an epochal confrontation. And the early froth over the contract--the equivalent of meringue on November’s electoral pie--will give way soon enough to lemon curd.

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For the Republicans and Democrats are about to revisit one of the toughest sets of recurring circumstances in modern U.S. history. Aside from all the talk about Gingrich’s unique election role, this is the third time this century that a Republican Congress has been elected to face a weak Democratic President at midterm--and the international, economic and political parallels are as fascinating as the potential problems are chilling.

Beyond political fratricide, a trio of little-appreciated precedents and parallels from 1919-20 and 1947-48 should also help frame the coming congressional challenge. Clinton is now badly weakened and vulnerable--like the aging and ill Woodrow Wilson of 1919-20, and the unpopular Harry S. Truman, widely viewed as not-quite-presidential in 1946-48.

Meanwhile, these post-Cold War years are generating many of the same foreign policy and defense debates so vivid before--isolationism vs. internationalism, immigration control and downsizing a war-expanded military. And the economy, now as then, is puzzling experts with deflationary and inflationary cross-tides and judgments on tax cuts vs. budget restraint--all potentially aggravated by the disjunction of GOP legislative and Democratic executive branches.

Let’s begin with how the weak Democratic Administrations of Wilson, Truman and Clinton provoked the election of GOP Congresses in the 1918, 1946 and 1994 midterms. The 1946 and 1994 results were both full-fledged midterm landslides; the lesser gains of 1918 (30 in the House, seven in the Senate) were just a bit less muscular. What’s potentially important for 1995-96, though, is how the GOP handled each opportunity and then fared in the next election.

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The Republicans of 1920 ran their 1918 gains into the biggest margins of the 20th Century--a President elected with 61%, a Senate of 59 Republicans and 37 Democrats and a House of 301 Republicans and 131 Democrats. Triumph is an inadequate description. In 1948, by contrast, inept Republicans got defoliated by one of history’s strongest Democratic comebacks: Truman won an upset reelection, and the Democrats added 75 new House seats and nine new Senate seats.

Wise Republicans and Democrats alike will ask: What strategy built the blow-out and which shaped the unexpected disaster? And will the same framework apply this year and next?

Beyond the disarray of the President, the next critical parallel involves the challenges of dealing with a postwar world--this time, post-Cold War. Democratic Administrations rarely impress the electorate with their prowess as major wars end and new geopolitical difficulties emerge. Wilson lost credibility in the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference after World War I. Truman, in turn, looked unimpressive in the aftermath of World War II. And few Americans now feel that Clinton’s role in the Cold War-to-peace transition has been skilled.

The result, once again, is to favor Republicans less given to starry-eyed peace blueprints and more coldblooded in their view of how far from the United States American soldiers should be sent to fight for anything but the clearest national interests. This is usually where the voters are, too.

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In 1920, the GOP’s isolationism, focused on skepticism about the League of Nations and a reluctance to meddle in Europe’s ethnic patchwork, appealed to the electorate, in general, and to angry German and Irish Democrats, in particular. And by a Machiavellian calculus, non-involvement in the 1920s and 1930s may have set up the United States to become the world’s mega-power in World War II.

By contrast, the post-World War II GOP Congress elected to spurn neo-isolationism and to cooperate with the Truman Administration in a bipartisan foreign policy that promoted the Marshall Plan and trade liberalization. This GOP support of engagement in world affairs served national interests--but the politics were another story. The populist and isolationist vote, especially in the Midwest, shifted against the GOP in 1948, and played a role in the surprise defeat of the party’s presidential nominee, Thomas E. Dewey.

Now the debate is starting again. Foreign observers already see Republican neo-isolationism in the widespread party opposition to Bosnian and Haitian-type involvements and GOP standoffishness toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. Immigration control is another “America First"-type issue that worked for the GOP after both world wars and could again. Then there’s the trade issue, in which Republican leaders have been at odds with a large chunk of their rank and file on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement. The contract is only the thinnest guide to an emerging mega-debate.

The good news for the GOP is that this third face-off has a major new ingredient--the public’s desire to clean out an unprecedentedly unpopular capital city. Much of this has, so far, worked for the Republicans--especially voters’ desire to sweep out the cobwebbed House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control.

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This gives the GOP a credible reform dimension that its previous Congresses facing Democratic Presidents lacked. 1994’s record public distrust of Washington also offers a mixed augury. Skepticism came together powerfully for the GOP in November because, for the first time in 14 years, the White House, Senate and House of Representatives were all controlled by Democrats. By 1996, this unprecedented cynicism could also be focusing on GOP failure, and there’s wide speculation that the two-party system may finally be about to splinter. (Though this speculation, too, led into the four-way presidential race of 1948).

The rare periods where a Republican Congress faces a Democratic President are usually notable for bloodshed and fratricide rather than bipartisan achievement. Given the towering rival egos of Clinton and Gingrich, the odds are that this year and the next will be more of the same. Washington politics just might get even uglier--if that’s possible.


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