Rollins Hustles for GOP Majority

Republicans have seized the ethics issue, but Bush may urge a truce to get his proposals passed. CAPITOL HILL

IF politics were baseball, House Republicans would be like a hapless team that has not won a pennant in 35 years. After decades of being No. 2 in the Capitol Hill league, the GOP has finally grown disgusted with losing. They've hired a new manager, Edward J. Rollins Jr. And they are sharpening their spikes.

Even some Democratic strategists admit that Mr. Rollins, who was chief political adviser in the Reagan White House, may be the man who can turn things around. He's tough. He's experienced. And from the moment he was appointed six months ago, he has sent a shudder through House Democrats.

What everyone is wondering now is: How will Rollins play the game? Is he going to be fair? Will he exploit the ethics scandals on the Hill in the 1990 congressional elections? Or will President Bush hold Rollins in check in order to get Democratic help on his legislative program?

After the ruckus over House Speaker Jim Wright and Democratic whip Tony Coelho - both resigned over ethics charges - some experts predict that the recent ill feelings on Capitol Hill will pass. They say the House will finally settle down and get to work.

Mr. Coelho, for example, says the ``country is tired of the bickering and partisanship.'' He told a breakfast meeting of reporters on Tuesday that Americans ``want to move on and solve problems.''

But other insiders say the bitterness in Congress has just begun, as the parties struggle for power.

Experts note that Rollins was not hired to win just a couple of elections, and then retire gracefully. Republicans are so far behind the Democrats that they need to win big - very big.

But to win, Rollins needs a hot issue: Ethics may be it.

Rollins's strategy plays off Americans' historic doubts about the honesty of their politicians. Today, pollsters report that public confidence in Congress is at an even lower ebb than usual. But doubts about Congress have always abounded. As Mark Twain said in the last century: ``It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.''

Republican preaching about ethics makes many Democrats angry and resentful. They accuse Republicans like Lee Atwater, the GOP chairman, and Rollins, who is co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, of using a broad brush to smear them.

``Mindless cannibalism,'' former Speaker Wright called it.

William Gray III, the new Democratic whip in the House, denounces Republican tactics as ``smear, innuendo, character assassination,'' and ``ethical McCarthyism.''

At a luncheon meeting with reporters, Mr. Gray, from Pennsylvania, said: ``At some point, I think the American people have to say, `Enough is enough.'''

Gray says the GOP strategy is clear: ``There is one party [the Republicans] that now wants to sell America a bill of goods that says, `There is one other political party [the Democrats] that is corrupt. ... That corruption comes from being in power too long. Therefore, they need to be kicked out.'

``So what do they do? They point to some people who have some problems. They are legitimate problems, I am not denying that. And therefore they say, `The whole is corrupt.'''

Though his methods are being challenged, Rollins shows no signs of backing off. In a recent newspaper column, he charged that ethical lapses have left House Democrats in disarray. He observed that before Mr. Wright, no speaker had been forced from office under fire.

Wright also compared the Democrats' one-party rule in the House to the kind of entrenched corruption that one-party control has brought to Mexico, Paraguay, and the Soviet Politburo.

Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says that in this acrid congressional climate, there is no sign yet of an end to the political warfare.

``Nobody is going to turn the other cheek. That's what it takes for a truce. It is bubbling beneath the surface, and will blow again like a volcano until 1990,'' he says.

``For Democrats, the motive is vengeance [for driving out Wright and Coelho]. For Republicans it is a desire to become the majority.''

But Dr. Sabato doubts the GOP strategy will work.

``I feel the Republicans will be disappointed in 1990, because there's sleaze on both sides and that will neutralize the issue. All this does is confirm to the average citizen that politics is crooked. Anyway, lots of Republicans are also at fault.''

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, also argues that Rollins and the Republicans are going about it the wrong way. He explains: ``I feel all politics is local. I would [try] a buddy system, with each Republican House member responsible for finding the best possible candidate'' in adjoining districts.

But Rollins needs something more than the incremental gains that might come from winning districts one by one. He hopes for a sea change in congressional politics, Mr. Hess observes. But Hess is doubtful. He says such changes in the Congress come only with cataclysmic events: the Civil War, the Great Depression, and perhaps Watergate.

``They are trying to create something out of petty scandal. But the American people believe that's how politicians operate, so most will just say, `What's new?'''

Most important, however, is that Rollins and GOP chairman Atwater may be working at cross purposes with their boss, President Bush.

As Hess explains: Mr. Bush's top priority right now is getting his program through. This nonelection year is the best time to do it. And passing a Bush program requires close cooperation with Democrats, who control both the House and the Senate.

``Bush is in the business of governance. Atwater and Rollins are in the business of politics,'' Hess observes. Right now, those two businesses conflict.

Keith Frederick, a Democratic consultant, is not very sympathetic with some of his angry party colleagues over the resignations of Wright and Coelho.

``They were doing what they should not have been doing, and it was affecting their jobs,'' Mr. Frederick says.

But Frederick says he doesn't think the ethics issue will be enough for Rollins. It will help Republican challengers - but only a little, he says. Democrats will still win, even if by narrower margins in 1990, Frederick predicts.

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