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Democratic Party leader receives a wake-up call ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- David Wilhelm, the 36-year-old Chicagoan who was Bill Clinton's campaign manager last year and is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says that after six months on the job, he has learned something about the Republicans in Congress: They play hardball.

That this should have come as any surprise to a man who saw his candidate pilloried with GOP attacks on his character last fall is a surprise in itself. One of the hallmarks of the Clinton campaign was its mastery of hitting back when hit, with a special "rapid response" unit in Little Rock that fielded Republican barbs on the short hop and fired back within a news cycle.

But Wilhelm says now that he never adequately gauged that "the Republicans [in Congress] made the calculation to be the obstructionist party" with the hope of destroying the Clinton presidency. That is one reason, he acknowledges, that their attacks on the president's deficit-reduction plan went until recently without intense challenge from the DNC, and he vows things will be different from now on.

Exhibit A is the airing of radio advertisements defending the Clinton economic package running in 15 media markets to boost public support as negotiations on the separate versions passed in the House and Senate are under way. Wilhelm took the unusual step last week of showing up at the Chicago hotel where the Republican National Committee was meeting to serve notice that the DNC is not going to let the GOP raps on the Clinton plan go unanswered, or the Republican alternative go unexamined.

Because he didn't expect the Republicans in Congress to march in lockstep against the Clinton plan, Wilhelm says now, "We have not been as combative as we should have been." One of the problems, he says, is that the Republican alternative was so insubstantial and unspecific in terms of budget cuts that it never got the scrutiny that Clinton's detailed plan faced. The GOP plan, he says, "does not ask a dime from millionaires for the national goal of debt reduction," and it falls at least $100 billion below the president's $500 billion reduction proposal.

In so observing, Wilhelm acknowledges that the GOP, which he calls the "Guardians of Privilege," will continue to accuse the Democratic Party of carrying on "class warfare." But the notion of soaking the rich, now called "tax fairness" by the Democrats, has been a standby for them for years. The Republican charge that use of it demonstrates Clinton is just another tax-and-spend Democrat does not hold up, Wilhelm insists, because the president has some $250 billion in spending cuts as well as tax increases in his plan.

Wilhelm's personal offensive against the hardball Republicans comes in the wake of criticism from some Democratic leaders in the House last month that they were not being kept adequately (( informed about changes in the Clinton economic package, and about the DNC's salesmanship of the package out around the country. There was speculation that Wilhelm, who had little Washington experience before taking the chairmanship, was going to be shifted to the White House political office. But Wilhelm says his position is secure and that he has had no indications that the White House wants him to move over there.

As for thinly veiled criticism from the Democratic Leadership Council that the president is not governing as the "different kind of Democrat" he campaigned as last year and won't win over Ross Perot voters unless he does, Wilhelm says he and the DLC agree that performance is what counts.

Success on Clinton's deficit-reduction plan, health-care reform, national service and welfare reform, he says, will quiet criticism and be a lure to the Perot supporters.

Wilhelm attributes much of Clinton's slide in the polls to a fear among voters that the early hope of his election and promises to end congressional gridlock had already been --ed.

That, he alleges, is precisely what the Republicans hoped to achieve with their filibuster defeat of the Clinton job stimulus bill.

In the long run, the Democratic chairman insists, GOP obstructionism may backfire, and in the meantime he intends to play hardball right back.

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