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The Republicans' agony of governing.

From 1969 to 1993, the Republicans were the presidential party and the Democrats the Congressional party. Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush made their major imprints in foreign policy. In domestic policy, they could sound broad themes, but it was the Democrats who controlled the play. Without a majority in Congress, no president can sustain or control the domestic agenda. Reagan's victory on taxes and the budget in 1981 was an exception. The rule was that Republican presidents bent to a Democratic Congress. Nixon accepted their environmental program; Reagan did not touch entitlement spending; and Bush caved in on new taxes.

As a seemingly permanent Congressional majority, the Democrats set the tone for domestic policy for decades. They continued the pork-barrel spending and protected the sacred entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. This strategy worked in their districts and allowed the Democrats to maintain their majority. In presidential elections, however, it availed them little. In that arena, broad issues determined the outcome and the Republicans had the advantage. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (at least in 1988) understood the themes voters wanted to hear -- social conservatism, military strength, and lower taxes.

Since the 1994 Congressional election, the parties have reversed their roles. Democrats have won two consecutive presidential elections for the first time since the 1960s, while the Republicans have controlled two consecutive Congresses for the first time since the 1920s. From all appearances, it seems as if the Democrats have adapted to this reversal more readily than the Republicans. Now it is a Democratic president who is sounding the broad themes of fiscal restraint, community responsibility, and social compassion, protecting Medicare, education, and the environment from the Republicans in Congress. When he signed the Welfare Reform Bill, odious to many of his constituents, Clinton claimed that the Republicans made him do so and that he would fix it later.

Clinton, who avoids difficult decisions when possible, seems comfortable above the fray in a world of photo-ops with foreign dignitaries and at disaster sites, as well as TV chats with Larry King, who specializes in softball questions. The economy is going well; he has faced no foreign policy crisis to test his mettle; and the scandals have yet to affect his poll ratings. Since his party does not control the Congress, the country does not expect him or the Congressional Democrats to set the domestic agenda. This is most convenient since they do not have one.

Now it is the Republicans who must produce. Their first attempt in the 104th Congress proved to be a humbling experience. Key pieces of the Contract With America -- the Balanced Budget Amendment, term limits, and tort and regulatory reform -- died a thousand deaths. Clinton so outmaneuvered them in the 1995-96 budget fight that many Republicans are reluctant to accept serious restraints on discretionary domestic spending. Perhaps they fear an enfilade of labor TV attack ads in their local districts branding them as enemies of education, the environment, and the elderly. It is unlikely that the Republican Congress will sign on to any reduction in the growth of entitlements unless Clinton agrees (which means they will be largely cosmetic). Failure to restrain entitlements could mean only modest tax cuts, and tax cuts are the essential glue that holds the Republican Party together.

On social issues, the Republicans have shown even more timidity. Despite the success of Proposition 209 in California, the party leaders are reluctant to support legislation ending racial, ethnic, and gender preferences. Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, and others are eager to regain the female and Hispanic votes and to make some inroads with the black vote. They see affirmative action issues as only antagonizing these groups without any appreciable gains.

While the Republicans dribble away their opportunity to capture the domestic agenda, the Democrats have found a comfortable role. The country expects less of them, and they can satisfy their core constituents by simply smothering Republican initiatives. Occasionally, they even can enjoy a victory or two, as they did in 1996 with the minimum wage bill. There is, as the Democrats in Congress are coming to appreciate, a certain irresponsibility that comes with being out of power -- defending worn-out programs, obstructing investigations of the Clintons, looking for Republican ethic violations, and plotting their own comeback in 1998 or 2000. For a short while, the Democrats are having some fun.

All this is maddening to the Republicans, who thought after the 1994 election that they had established a new governing majority. They envisioned an era of lower taxes, fewer regulations, smaller government, and balanced budgets. With Clinton in a state of shock after losing the Congress, Republican leaders considered victory in 1996 a forgone conclusion. Instead, they discovered the Democratic resistance more determined and Clinton more resilient than they had anticipated. Now it is the Republicans who are in a state of shock and in danger of losing the public's confidence.

If they are serious about their agenda -- tort reform, ending racial and gender preferences, the flat tax, school vouchers, medical savings accounts, regulatory relief -- they must present their case, pass their bills, and let Clinton veto them. This would set the stage for the next presidential election. Then, the country will have another chance to decide if it wants to get off dead center. If the Republicans can't make the case for change, the Democrats may be happy just to stay where they are. For those who want to preserve the status quo, controlling either the legislative or executive branch will do. Since Republicans have much more in mind, they must control both branches. Before the public will grant them that opportunity, they must prove that they know what to do with one.
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Title Annotation:Congress
Author:Bresler, Robert J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:954
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