WASHINGTON -- The best indication yet that the Republicans believe President Clinton's unpopularity is their ticket to fat congressional gains Nov. 8 may be a memorandum to Republican leaders from Bill Kristol, the former Dan Quayle chief of staff who now heads the new GOP think tank, Project for the Republican Future.
All this year, Kristol has been the party's most conspicuous apostle of obstructionism, most notably obstruction of the Clinton health care plan and various offshoots, and of campaign finance reform. Arguing that these and other Clinton-backed proposals are bad medicine for the country, he has steadfastly counseled the party to stonewall and eventually slay them, and has seen his plea answered by the Republicans in Congress.
In his latest memo, entitled "Keep on Obstructin' " and issued days before the Republicans killed campaign finance reform, Kristol called Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's efforts to block it "obstructionism at its best." Normally, politicians flee from the word, but Kristol's memo pointedly invites the Democrats to use it, clearly confident that in a showdown between voters' dislike of Clinton and the allegations of Republican obstructionism, the dissatisfaction with the president will be more persuasive at the ballot box.
Kristol argued in his memo that the Democrats, having lost on health care reform, pushed campaign reform in the waning days of this Congress to bolster their case of GOP obstructionism as their best hope of averting disaster in the midterm elections. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Kristol wrote, "is acutely aware of the fierce Republican opposition to the campaign finance package. Yet it is precisely opposition that he wants to provoke."
Mitchell, Kristol wrote, "is now in hot pursuit of gridlock. A fresh instance of partisan gridlock, even on as mundane an issue as campaign finance, could appear to give some credence to his argument that Republican obstructionism is the true cause of congressional failure. So it is now his conscious and deliberate strategy to force Republicans into a standoff . . ." Kristol accused Mitchell of using campaign finance reform as "the bait in a sophisticated game of obstruction," and therefore Mitchell is the one "who is responsible for this gridlock. He may be the greatest obstructionist of all."
Earlier in this Congress, Kristol was singularly aggressive in his efforts to brace the backbones of Republican legislators, arguing at the outset of the health care fight that the GOP should insist that there was no "crisis" in health care. Rather than trying to compete with Clinton on health care reforms or offer watered-down versions, Kristol wrote, Republicans should fight to defeat them as harmful legislation hostile to the conservative philosophy of keeping government out of areas best handled by private enterprise.
For a time, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole contended that some health care reform was warranted, but as the assault on the Clinton plan and other versions by the insurance industry began to take a heavy toll, Dole backed off and Republican opposition to any health care legislation stiffened.
Dole, a prospective 1996 presidential candidate, has been fearful that a reputation as "Senator No" could hurt his chances. But he, too, now seems to feel that obstructionism can be given a good name by using it to thwart Clinton.
Kristol's memo makes the same point: "As we learned from the debates on the [job] stimulus package, the crime bill, and above all on health care, the more we debate the merits of the Democratic proposals, the stronger our case against the administration's policy agenda appears to the American people. What the Democrats call obstructionism has turned out to be a valuable opportunity to articulate and advance principled, conservative Republican objections to bad legislation -- and lay the groundwork for a positive counter-agenda."
Unstated in all this is the belief that Democratic incumbents, who control Congress, will feel the voters' ire for gridlock more than Republican incumbents on Nov. 8 -- especially if Bill Clinton can be tied to their tails.