WASHINGTON -- While Democrats diligently find some silver linings in President Clinton's often-cloudy first year in office, Republicans are professing to see grounds for optimism in the role their party has played as the opposition for the first time in 12 years.
On the electoral side, they have come out clear winners, with victories in the only two gubernatorial races of 1993, in New xTC Jersey and Virginia. Their capture of two metropolis mayoralties, in New York and Los Angeles, provided a major psychological boost, coming among traditionally Democratic constituencies, and their victories in the two special Senate races since Clinton's own election, in Georgia and Texas, gave them a start on their long-shot goal of recapturing that body next November. GOP mayors also were elected in Syracuse and Binghamton, N.Y., Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., and Dayton, Ohio.
Although the Republicans in Congress failed to block Clinton's deficit-reduction package, they demonstrated impressive unity in not yielding a single Republican vote in either the House or Senate, forcing the president to spend political capital to coax the last Democratic votes and barely squeeze through.
Their Senate filibuster killed Clinton's job stimulus plan, setting many urban and union leaders to grumbling against him, and their strong majority in the House for the North American Free Trade Agreement bailed him out when a majority of House Democrats went against him. Democratic charges of Republican obstructionism that had validity in the budget and jobs votes were contradicted by the GOP vote for NAFTA.
Many Republicans have been quick to credit a poor freshman performance by Clinton for a Republican resurgence after the humiliating defeat of George Bush a year ago. Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour says Republican contributions have gone up by 50 percent in the past year, about 80 percent of them of $100 or less, with 300,000 new contributors, because "Clinton's reminded people of what they like about us." Voters, he says, "are disappointed that what Clinton said in his campaign has been very different from what he has done as president."
In important respects, however, such as deficit reduction and NAFTA and with his current push for health-care reform, Clinton has tried to deliver on his campaign promises. Some important Republicans are warning that it will be a mistake to count on his mistakes and relative unpopularity in the first year to put their party back in the White House in 1996.
That is why many Republicans see the prospective elevation of House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich to House Minority Leader upon the imminent retirement of incumbent Robert Michel as a key changing of the guard, with leadership passing to a younger and more ideologically aggressive generation of Republicans in Congress.
One notable voice being heard in this regard is that of Bill Kristol, formerly chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle. He has formed a new think tank called the Project for the Republican Future and argues that "no party should rest its hopes or base its goals on the weakness of its opponents." He sees his new group "as the analog of the Democratic Leadership Council," which challenged traditional Democratic liberal thinking and helped elect one of its own in Clinton.
Kristol argues that the GOP will err if it engages in either me-tooism or partisan negativism on such key issues as health-care reform, when what is needed is "to build a true alternative Republican agenda, the absence of which really did us in" in 1992. Rather than tinkering with the Clinton health-care approach, he says, the party should fight to "defeat the president's plan outright" and then set about making needed fixes in the existing system.
One complication, many Republican leaders acknowledge, is the absence of a clearly identifiable 1996 presidential nominee to lead and give focus to the fight. But Kristol notes that the DLC helped set the winning Democratic agenda before Clinton emerged. And the fact that the Republicans have a full field of eager 1996 prospects in itself measures the party's optimism after its first year out in the cold after 12 in the warmth of the Oval Office.