THE FIRST 100 days of House Republicans' Contract with America have passed into history. To hear President Clinton and other Democrats hyperventilate, the decisions House Republicans have made in attempting to live up to the contract have constituted an unvarnished tragedy.
Adopting the same lines of partisan attacks as Republicans employed against the president's early plans, Democrats have managed to portray Republicans as heartless, cold-blooded and senseless as they snatch food from the mouths of babes. Democrats have accused Republicans of favoring torment for unwed teen-agers, insisting on polluting everything in sight and foolishly refusing to bow to the blandishments of trial lawyers who make millions in monstrous malpractice cases.
Much of that hyperbole is no closer to truth than the canards Republicans hurled at entrenched Democrats when they held ironclad control over both chambers of Congress.
Voters responded last year to Republican attacks and the voters' own instinctive understanding that one-party rule for four decades was an open invitation to abuse of public trust. Voters tossed out most of the Democrats.
Few would dispute that Democrats determined their fate. Pretending to be representatives of the common man, Democratic political warlords ignored the little people while amassing power and private fortunes.
Voters finally got fed up with being taken for granted while having their pockets picked by ever-higher taxes. They revolted in massive numbers last November, hurling entrenched Democratic incumbents and rookies out with equal abandon. Many voters did not actually know all the elements of the contract, but they sensed that the document might well be the last best hope in this century for people to take back some of their government.
Voters thought passage of the contract would mean lower taxes, less government intrusion into their lives, reduction in the numbers of apparently shiftless bureaucrats and limited terms for members of Congress.
It won't mean many of those things, and many Republicans knew that when they mouthed the words. Stung by their minority role, Democrats have begun fighting back. They have argued that they got a bum rap from Republicans and voters. Democrats continue to insist that only they can act on anything resembling empathy for the underprivileged. They continue to portray every new Republican initiative as another measure to sell out the middle and lower classes to the wealthy and powerful who already control most things worth controlling in this country.
Actually, Democrats did not get a bum rap. Too often the people they helped most were officeholders enchanted with their own power.
Voters clearly resented that. They also resented the notion that solutions to society's problems can come only from government, a government that is financed by ever-spiraling taxes.
Voters also resented Democratic ideas promulgated by largely arrogant and self-serving elitists (who aren't that much different from Republican elitists).
The newly fired-up Democratic critics in Washington have sought to trash the contract by a string of distortions and half-truths. Occasionally Democrats have committed something radical: They have accurately pointed out that some of the elements in the contract are half-baked or simply silly.
But don't expect Democrats to concede any semblance of duplicity. They are simply playing by the rules used the past two years by Republicans. The GOP captured momentum by labeling the president's economic stimulus package as an unwieldy conglomeration of recreation projects and other unneeded pork. The Republican tactic defeated the package. Republicans also defeated the Clinton health reform plan by describing it as an unbridled government takeover of the best health care system in the world.
Republicans framed the issues to suit themselves. Democrats, unaccustomed to such fiercely focused intensity, did not respond effectively.
Now Democrats are labeling Republican plans as nothing more than a reverse Robin Hood scheme in which the poor are robbed to benefit the wealthy. True or not, it has become an article of faith with many Washington insiders and the journalists who make their living inside the Beltway.
Some of the Democratic claims are no more legitimate than were those launched by Republicans against Democrats. But some Democratic whining is clearly falsehood. One such lie was circulated late last week by Democratic leaders who contended that Republicans were aiming to dismantle a welfare system that had been clearly successful.
Excuse me, but what planet have those Democrats been on?
Governors, who are closer to the welfare problem than anyone in Washington, have been complaining for years about the need to reform a welfare system that breeds dependency, multiplies illegitimacy and leads to soaring crime rates. One of those governors was none other than William Jefferson Clinton.
Neither political party is virtuous in its attack methods and self-serving posturing. And there is considerable doubt among many members of the public that each element of the Contract with America should be adopted as it was proposed in the House.
The truth is, however, that amid the political rhetoric Republicans have forced Congress to work real hours and advance real reform ideas. Debating the issues contained within the contract won't hurt anyone. Time eventually will tell if the Republicans' first 100 days are the solid groundwork for real revolution or spasms that will be buried under hundreds more days of political posturing as usual.
Rich Hood is editorial page editor of the Kansas City Star.