Republicans Regroup

THE party of ideas.

That is a label Republicans are trying to recapture as they work to recover from last year's presidential defeat.

This is a welcome goal. To date, since President Clinton's inaugural, Republicans in Congress have been more successful in identifying what they are against: Mr. Clinton's $16.3 billion stimulus package, for example, which a GOP filibuster helped defeat, as well as his economic package of tax increases and spending cuts designed to reduce the deficit to less than $200 billion by 1997. Indeed, the defeat of the stimulus package has become something of a Republican rallying point: This was one of the messa ges of the Monitor series, concluding in today's edition, on the efforts of "outsiders" to regroup. Yet it should be remembered that the success of that filibuster was due less to the merits or demerits of the package than to parliamentary arrogance on the part of Senate Democrats, which cost them the support of enough moderate Republicans to prevent ending the filibuster.

Ironically, Republicans face the same general problem with focus that is troubling the Clinton team, although for a different reason. Where Clinton's "focus thing" stems from trying to do too much at one time, the GOP's lack of focus stems from longstanding splits within the party over what direction it should take on social issues, economic issues, and foreign policy, as well as splits over whether social or economic issues should dominate as defining the GOP.

On social issues, for example, conservative William Bennett contends that social issues are the key to recapturing the votes of working-class ethnic Democrats who so strongly supported Ronald Reagan. Yet given the troubled state of the economy in 1980, with double-digit inflation, double-digit interest rates, and high unemployment, the GOP's economic stands played as strong a role as its social stands, if not a stronger one.

If anything, the social-issue notion worked in reverse last year, when a week of hearing conservative harangues on social issues during the GOP convention pushed many voters already leaning away from the Bush effort because of the economy into the Perot and Clinton camps.

The economy remains the foremost issue of the day: Witness the pressure Ross Perot and the Concord Coalition are trying to put on efforts to cut the deficit. As the battle is joined over Clinton's economic package, Republicans are going to have an opportunity not just to oppose, but to propose. If they are to lay the groundwork for a competitive run in 1996, even if Clinton fails to adjust his focus sufficiently, Republicans will need more than social ideology to draw votes.

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