GOP's election coup won't revise the system


WASHINGTON -- Watching Newt Gingrich strut across the political stage these days, you might infer that he is about to assume the throne as emperor of all he surveys rather than becoming speaker of the House of Representatives.

His insistence that he will practice "cooperation" with the Clinton administration but never "compromise" suggests the Republican from Georgia now plans to rule by fiat. Presumably he will learn it isn't that simple.

For one thing, Gingrich does not hold a majority in the House large enough to override vetoes by Bill Clinton, who was still president of the United States the last time we looked.

For another, Congress still has two bodies, so the new speaker inevitably will find it necessary to deal with the Senate and the new majority leader, Bob Dole, who is suspected by some Republicans of believing there is sometimes a role for government in American life. And anyone who knows Dole knows that he does not roll over easily.

Gingrich does have some high cards to play. The Republicans have won an overwhelming endorsement from the electorate for their basic message that government has become too big, too expensive and too intrusive to be tolerated at its present level. And several of the planks in the celebrated "Contract with America" are likely to earn broad and bipartisan backing in Congress. The surviving conservative Democrats have read the election returns, too.

Equally pertinent is the fact that Dole is likely to have an agenda of his own. The Kansas Republican is a de facto candidate for president in 1996, and he won't be shy about asserting himself.

Gingrich's greatest asset in wielding power may be the dicey situation confronting Clinton. The president does have that veto pen, but he cannot afford to use it in cases where there would be enough Democratic defections to override him.

Clinton also must be concerned about holding together the remaining liberal blocs in both the House and Senate. He cannot simply go along with a draconian welfare reform plan, for example, without undermining his remaining base and inviting a challenge to his renomination for a second term.

The president does have weapons, however, if he chooses to use them. Although it may not have seemed to be true in the week since the election, any president has the ability to set the national agenda and put his message across in the news media. And the voters showed enough interest in the 1994 election to suggest they may be willing to pay some attention to the dynamics of the relationship between the White House and Congress.

It appears right now, of course, that Clinton is holding a weak hand. The election results have been widely -- and correctly -- viewed as a rejection of his performance in the Oval Office so far. And opinion polls show the president to be very much on the defensive except in a few of the industrial states. In seeking his second term, Clinton has to recognize that he has little or no hope of winning any electoral votes in the South outside of his own home state of Arkansas.

But public opinion is volatile and the polls can turn very quickly, as President George Bush discovered only a few months after the Persian Gulf War.

Nor is Newt Gingrich a universally beloved politician. On the contrary, polls and focus groups studied by both parties during the 1994 campaign found his personal ratings middling at best. Although they aren't likely to admit it now, there were Republican candidates for House seats this fall who thought it was wise to keep a prudent distance from the Georgian.

The bottom line is that Gingrich has good reason to exult, but he does not have unlimited authority to remake the government from top to bottom. There will be times he will have to cooperate and quite possibly more than a few issues on which he will be obliged to compromise. One election, even one as stunning as the 1994 election, doesn't change the system.

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