Calling GOP 'extremist' might well be a hard-sell

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- With the House Republicans' "Contract with America" half completed, some objectives were quickly reached. These included requiring Congress to observe the same workplace laws that apply to the rest of the country, an independent audit of Congress, cuts in House committees and staffs, limits on committee chairmanships, an end to proxy voting in committee and opening most committee meetings to press and public.

Of the specific legislative proposals, the House has passed the following in one form or another: the line-item veto, a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, new anti-crime and defense bills and limits on unfunded mandates on states.

A few specifics have been rejected: requiring congressional approval to engage in United Nations peacekeeping; full funding to resurrect Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" space missile defense scheme; requiring a three-fifths vote to raise taxes. But overall, // the impression created has been one of no-nonsense forward movement.

More than the details, that impression is important politically to a Republican Party that hopes to finish the job it started so emphatically last Nov. 8 -- by holding control of Congress and electing a Republican president next year.

As House Speaker Newt Gingrich has readily acknowledged, the toughest hurdles in the contract remain ahead, particularly in the areas of welfare reform and congressional term limits. The former shapes up as the major legislative battle ground of this year and the latter already is rated a long-shot. But the House Republicans pledged only to bring all these matters to a vote, not pass them, so they don't have to bat a thousand to take credit.

Although the Senate Republicans were not formally partners to the contract, that distinction is likely to be largely lost on voters, and it is in the Senate where the GOP figures to fall short. The very deliberative nature of the Senate dictates a slower pace, and indeed it has passed only the congressional and unfunded mandates reforms so far.

Faced with this developing Republican record in Congress, President Clinton is only beginning to snap out of the daze cast over Democrats generally by the midterm election results. After a State of the Union address and a budget message regarded by many critics as handing over his sword, the president appears at last to be formulating a strategic and political response upon which to fashion his expected 1996 re-election bid.

Ironically, the catalyst for that response has had nothing to do with the Republican contract. Rather, it has been an outgrowth of the GOP attack on his nomination of Dr. Henry Foster to be surgeon general. The Republican outcry at the disclosure that Foster had performed abortions -- legal abortions -- in his regular practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist provided Clinton with the basis for charging that Republican "extremists" on the issue wanted Foster's scalp.

The "extremism" label is one that touches a sensitive nerve within the Republican Party, going back to the exclusionary rhetoric of the two Pats, Buchanan and Robertson, at the 1992 GOP national convention in Houston. Putting abortion, widely accepted by Americans in all the polls, on the table as a political issue is a calculated gamble by the Democrats to paint the Republican Party as captive of the far right.

From that position, Clinton has now segued into allegations that while some of the Republican contract reforms are worthwhile, others are so extreme as to be destructive of the public's and the nation's well-being. In a pep talk to House Democrats on the 50th day of the contract, he declared: "We have no intention of abandoning the American people to unproven theories and extreme positions."

Such statements are clear signals that the president's strategists see political opportunity in casting the Republicans as "extremists" who, in their zeal to assault the federal government, want to throw the baby out with the bath water. In this era of anti-government sentiment, it figures to be a hard sell. But it may be the best one Clinton and the Democrats have as the human costs of the contract become more evident.

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