Clinton's Miscues Give GOP Hope For a Comeback

Republicans seek to regain initiative on core economic issues and shake intolerant image

DEMOCRATS control the White House for the first time in a dozen years, so why are Republicans suddenly smiling?

President Clinton's bumpy beginning may have something to do with it.

Republicans charge that in less than two weeks, the new president has deflated his economic message, catered to what they call special interests like homosexuals and lobbyists, and damaged his credibility.

Glen Bolger, a GOP political consultant, says, "I was afraid President Clinton would be what he said he would be, a `new kind of Democrat.' But so far, it's the same old Democratic issues, the same old Democratic rhetoric."

During the campaign, Mr. Clinton often sounded like former President Reagan, vowing to cut taxes on working Americans. Instead, Clinton's Cabinet now talks about new energy taxes, which would hit the middle class hard.

Clinton promised to protect Social Security. Now Social Security is "on the table" for possible cuts, along with other entitlements.

Clinton pledged new reforms in Washington, with lobbyists taking a back seat. Then he appointed top lobbyists like Ronald Brown to head the Commerce Department and Mickey Kantor to be his trade representative.

Clinton pledged to "focus like a laser beam" on the economy the day he got into the White House. Instead, his first big policy initiative was a controversial move to expand rights for homosexuals in the military. His economic plan will not show up until mid-February.

Delighted Republicans can hardly believe their good fortune. They see Clinton handing them both an economic and social agenda for the next campaign.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are taking the first steps to rebuild their defeated party. The job could be daunting. Even some Republicans concede that President Bush's reelection bid was one of the worst-run national campaign in modern times. They say the party's convention last summer in Houston made the GOP look strident and narrow-minded, more interested in ideological purity than in jobs for Americans.

To begin the rebuilding process, the 165-member Republican National Committee elected Haley Barbour, a lawyer/lobbyist and Mississippi politician, as their new national chairman.

Mr. Barbour, who served a stint as President Reagan's political director, is a grass-roots operative who, Republicans hope, will bind together the party's fractious moderate and conservative wings.

Barbour began his new job by attacking his party's image of intolerance. In a weekend speech, he said: "It is very important ... when we talk in terms of a party of principle and party of ideas that we not confuse principle with intolerance."

Fifty percent of Americans think the GOP is intolerant, according to a recent CNN/Time magazine poll. That number worries Republican leaders.

Tony Fabrizio, a GOP political consultant, says a Republican majority must be rebuilt on economic issues, particularly the party's opposition to higher taxes. That issue attracts all factions of the party. "We need to get back to our roots," Mr. Fabrizio says. And the root of the party is economics.

But political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia says social and moral issues, which alienated some Republican moderates in the 1992 election, are still important to the GOP's future. Handled astutely, they could greatly help the GOP.

"The [Republican] party is a coalition of many different interests, peoples, issues. If you try and slim down too much, you will not come anywhere close to a majority," Sabato says.

The current uproar over gays in the military illustrates the kind of liberal-left Democratic ideology that Republicans could exploit, the professor suggests. Though the issue may quiet down for awhile, Sabato says, it won't go away for long.

He predicts: "I'd be willing to bet this is still around as an election issue in '96. This is not the end of the gay issue. It is the beginning of the gay issue."

He recalls that Democrats have promised a civil rights law for gays, adding: "Gay leaders are frank to say, `Our eventual goal is legalization of marriage between gays, spousal support, benefits, adoptions, etc., etc.' This is a long struggle in their view, and now that it is on the table, it is going to remain on the table."

Has Clinton opened himself to serious political trouble on the gay issue? Sabato suggests it will depend upon the president's political skills. But these first days of his administration are not propitious.

He says: "Most people are willing to give Clinton some rope at the beginning. Democrats have been out of power. This is a shakedown period. But if there are two or three months of this [political uproar], it will be `Katie bar the door.' Honeymoons can be very brief."

And the Republicans are watching.

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