Post-scandal Washington

Post-scandal Washington is a mixed-up place. Republicans who impeached President Clinton are taking their triumph as a beating. Indeed, as Republican pollster Ed Goeas told us over breakfast, his party now is "intimidated" by the president when it should be noting that the polls which show Mr. Clinton's high performance ratings also disclose that a strong majority of the public dislikes him "personally."

A subdued GOP national chairman, Jim Nicholson, had breakfast with us a few days later and sought to assure us that his party was still in a fighting mood. But my impression was that this beribboned war veteran is not leading his party into confrontation, though he says his party hasn't given up on its effort to provide a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut. I thought I detected compromise in the chairman's eyes.

Only a few days after the Nicholson breakfast, GOP congressional leaders came up with a plan that provided many billions in tax reductions over the next 10 years, but abandoned the 10 percent cut for next year. The proposal sounded more conciliatory than confrontational, and likely to lead to many Republican compromises before the final budget becomes law.

Now I probably will receive a rebuttal from Nicholson as I did last fall when I wrote that a "split of exceeding large and perhaps historic proportions is taking place within the Republican Party." He said a "lively debate" was taking place within the party, of conservatives and moderates, but the fact was that the party was growing. "We are wining converts daily," he wrote in a letter that this paper published.

I doubt very much whether Nicholson today would argue so vehemently about how healthy his party is. We'll see.

But in the flood of letters I've been receiving of late - mostly focused on the Clinton scandal - I've discerned a revealing subtext: A large number of these people said they were upset with the president's conduct but were sticking with him because they had no other place to go.

Some said they were independents; but many identified themselves as "moderate Republicans" or "former lifelong Republicans." But they all were saying, in effect, that on too many issues the Republican Party had turned them off now.

The predominant reason given for this disaffection with the Republican Party was the perceived "controlling influence" of the Christian right. While these voters may share the family values of this conservative group, it becomes evident in their letters that these people believe strongly that the Christian Coalition's political activity violates one of America's basic principles: keeping the separation between church and state.

And now an additional indication of dissatisfaction among Republicans has surfaced. This time it's the Republican right that is showing signs of revolting. Its complaint: that the mighty efforts (and money) it has thrown into campaigns in support of GOP candidates is gaining them very little. These conservatives saw their presidential candidate, Bob Dole, telling audiences he had no intention even of reading a Republican platform that included planks they highly valued. And now they are hearing that the current way-out-front leader in the run for the next presidential race, George W. Bush, has no interest in advocating the Christian right's favorite positions, like a "right-to-life" point of view on abortion, stated explicitly in words these conservatives would like to hear.

Well, Mr. Nicholson may still have numbers "proving" that this is merely part of a healthy "debate" - and that his party is growing.

But come the next election I can guarantee you, Mr. Chairman, that some, and perhaps many, of these less-than-avid Republicans may pause before they vote for the GOP presidential candidate, whoever he or she may be. And they might not vote at all. Or they might vote, as many have in the past, for Ross Perot if he is on the ballot - or for some other third-party candidate.

Or some - believe it or not - might even, with little or no enthusiasm, cast their vote for the Democrat.

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