The Current Levels of Mistrust between Factions Inside Each of the Two US Political Parties Makes for Defensive, Rather Than Bold, Politics

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There are three big stories in Washington, interrelated in the strangest ways. The first is the turmoil among Republicans in the House of Representatives in the wake of a failed attempt to oust the Speaker, Newt Gingrich. The second is the Senate investigation into the political funding follies of the 1996 campaign. The third is the negotiation between President Clinton and the Republican Congressional leadership about a plan to wipe out the federal budget deficit.

In all these stories the confrontation between Republicans and Democrats that is supposed to be the joy of a two-party system has been complicated by the immense mistrust within each party among factions. It all makes for defensive rather than bold politics.

To begin with the budget. This week Clinton and the Republicans announced a final agreement after testy negotiations. The fact that negotiations have been difficult reflects a brief tilt to the left made by Clinton since the initial agreement in May. The fact that the deal has happened anyway suggests that the president's move may have been a feint.

The deal is one big political trade-off built around a mountain of smaller ones. Clinton protected his favourite spending programmes, mostly in education, won a major expansion in federal health insurance cover for children and a tax break to help students and families pay the cost of university or community college education. The Republicans got what they always want: tax cuts - especially in the levies on capital gains and inheritances. The trade-off was made possible by economic growth, which is cutting the deficit all by itself and giving each side a little cash to play with.

The principled wings of both parties denounced the deal. Conservative Republicans said the promised fiscal balance was fake, since the budget protected a good deal of spending. Tax-cutting enthusiasts thought the tax cuts derisory. Among Democrats the leftish Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota worried that the lid on future spending was unrealistic and that Clinton had agreed to give far too much tax relief to the wealthy.

Back in May Clinton had agreed to a certain amount of tax relief, but not to specific measures. When Republicans presented their specifics, Clinton attacked them as too beneficial to the wealthy. The President then wrote his own tax plan, which shifted most of the tax relief to the middle and lower ends of the income distribution.

The new Clinton position made his critics on the left happy for a while, but infuriated the Republicans, who had already had more than their share of splits. The revolt against Gingrich was in part personal and in part electoral (Republicans fear that Gingrich's unpopularity will jeopardise their control of the House in the 1998 elections). But the energy behind the rebellion was ideological: Gingrich has become too "moderate" for many of the Republican revolutionaries to whom he was once a hero.

Unlike the revolutionaries, Gingrich has learnt from the failure of the strategy of confrontation he pursued in the last Congress. …