WASHINGTON — WITH President Clinton's personal intervention unable to broker a solution, the baseball strike increasingly resembles World War I, when bitter trench warfare ended with the exhausted collapse of armies. The peace that resulted was simply a prelude to the next conflagration.
The current spectacle of baseball owners and players bickering in the White House may yet shame the parties and produce a settlement before spring training. The mere threat of congressional involvement could force action. But a number of economists and sports experts point to reasons why an end to the baseball strike today seems as far off as ever:
* Players and owners distrust each other deeply and show no willingness to concede that the other side has legitimate points.
* President Clinton's intervention, while reasonable, should have occurred much earlier in the process, before positions had time to harden.
* Congress has more important things to do than debate baseball and may be reluctant to act quickly on legislation that would force binding arbitration on the disputing parties.
``Neither party, player or owner, should be looking to Congress for any magic solutions,'' warned Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas this week. ``The magic solution can only be found at the bargaining table.''
As of this writing the involvement of the White House and mediator William Usery appeared to have run into a wall. A proposed settlement devised by Mr. Usery, centered on a 50-percent tax on the portion of team payrolls that exceeds $40 million, was accepted by owners on Tuesday, but not by players. A White House proposal that the two sides voluntarily submit to binding arbitration was accepted by players but not by owners. Civility seemed to be breaking down, with a player-union official calling Usery ``senile'' for one aspect of his proposal to end the strike.
Accordingly, the president annnounced late Tuesday that he will submit legislation to Congress that would force binding arbitration on the parties. He said he would ask for ``expeditious'' consideration of the proposal, given that spring training is scheduled to open in days and that the economic loss to communities with baseball will start to accumulate.
The new Republican leaders of Congress may be reluctant to pick up this issue, however. Senator Dole has indicated as much. House Speaker Newt Gingrich wants to continue to focus on the ``Contract With America.'' At a press conference yesterday, he said that ``Congress ought to be very cautious. There are enough things the federal goverment is already doing badly.''
President Clinton may be counting on the political angle: If Congress does not act, it will seem to share responsiblity for the continuation of a strike that many US sports fans want desperately to end. On the other hand, polls show that while voters tend to side with owners in the dispute, few Americans really care who comes out on top in the end.
``Congress can't hurt itself by not acting,'' says Michael Kazin, an American University professor of both labor and sports history.
To those who look at the world through a political lens, it remains something of a mystery why Mr. Clinton has involved himself in the strike at all. After all, baseball is not steel or railroads. There is no national emergency or even real economic effect, except in scattered communities.
Economically, the strike helps other industries. ``It is good for football, and other competitive uses of our entertainment dollar,'' says Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist and Baltimore Orioles fan.
Politically, Clinton may have counted on gaining from forcing a strike settlement. It would have made him look decisive. It would have pleased white, male, middle-aged voters, baseball's primary fans and a section of the voting populace that Democrats have had trouble winning.
But in the end, sports are not as important as war, Medicare, or budget balancing. The president has no power to directly force a baseball settlement, anyway, considering that it has not created a national emergency. Clinton may have called the players and owners together for a reason Washingtonians might not at first accept: He could do it, and he wants to see baseball played himself.
``Maybe he or somebody in the White House just really cares about baseball,'' notes Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside.
With the players adamant about resisting a tax on their salaries, and owners adamant that they need such a tax to facilitate revenue-sharing between rich and poor franchises, the only solution may be one suggested by irreverent Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio: Lock player and owner representatives in a room and feed them nothing but baked beans and fried cheese until they agree to settle.