GOP Wrestles with Where to Go from Here: Confrontation or Cooperation?

By Hallow, Ralph Z. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

GOP Wrestles with Where to Go from Here: Confrontation or Cooperation?


Hallow, Ralph Z., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Republicans seem more tentative than they have in years about who they are and where they want to go after being hit with bad news and good news on Tuesday.

They have lost two presidential elections back-to-back for the first time since 1964 but have won two consecutive majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. The question they now face is: Should they become a big-tentcoalition or maintain themselves as a moderate-conservative alliance that speaks in softer, non-threatening rhetoric?

"We have to decide if we are a congressional majority party that responds to Democratic presidential initiatives or a national party that initiates major legislation and prepares to retake the White House," says Don Fierce, until recently a political strategist for the Republican National Committee.

The temptation for Republicans to stay in their foxholes and wait out history's unfolding is strong.

For one thing, Republicans in Congress believe they have President Clinton in a box. By getting him to agree to a balanced budget and tax cuts, they have reduced the kind of social and pork-barrel spending that, as House Speaker Newt Gingrich has often said, Democrats have used to fund their political base.

Furthermore, the next two years are not expected to be good ones for the Democrats on the ethics front. Mr. Clinton, his wife, his administration and his national party are under investigation or are expected to face new inquiries by congressional committees and independent counsels for a variety of suspected transgressions.

Even without the specter of their own version of Watergate, Democrats can expect to lose seats in both houses in the 1998 elections, if history is a guide. A party winning re-election to the White House has tended to suffer costly defeats two years later in congressional elections.

In 1958, two years after President Eisenhower's re-election, his party lost 47 House seats and 13 Senate seats. Republicans lost 43 House seats and three Senate seats in 1974, the midterm election after President Nixon's re-election. In 1986, midway through President Reagan's second term, Republicans lost five House seats and eight Senate seats, which cost them their majority in the Senate.

Despite predictions by some Democrats and Republicans that Mr. Clinton would win by twice the 8-point margin he racked up against Bob Dole and that Republicans would lose control of one or both houses of Congress, the GOP gained two Senate seats, and will end up losing about 10 seats in the House.

"We need a `steady as we go, crush the left little by little' strategy," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a Republican Party activist with close ties to the GOP congressional and national leadership. "We don't need to throw the long bomb. The Democrats do."

Some Republicans go further. Just by smiling and eschewing touchy issues, they say privately, they could pick up a vetoproof majority in the Senate in 1998 and in the House by 2000.

Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, however, believes his party should forsake the safety of being simply a congressional party, of imitating the Democrats in their long run as the congressional majority. The Democrats conducted all races as local contests over local issues and thus insulated themselves from the changing national political trends - at least until 1994. …

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GOP Wrestles with Where to Go from Here: Confrontation or Cooperation?
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