An opening for the Democrats


WASHINGTON - Democrats are in a quandary about how to make a comeback from the defeat they suffered not only in the presidential race but also in both houses of Congress. Speculation already has started on the need for someone on a white horse to magically lead them out of the wilderness four years from now.

The Democrats recall fondly how a young governor from Arkansas pulled off the trick in 1992 after a dozen years of Republican rule. But Bill Clinton stumbled badly in his first two presidential years and took a shellacking from Republican leaders in Congress in his first off-year congressional elections, losing control of both houses to the GOP for the first time in four decades.

What may have enabled him to right himself in 1996 was not so much any magical political comeback as the blundering of the Republican-controlled Congress led by that classic over-reacher, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In debating the fiscal 1996 budget, Mr. Gingrich went overboard in a face-off against Mr. Clinton by pushing cuts in food stamps, school lunches and foster care and daring him to close down popular government services. Mr. Clinton took the dare, ordered the shutting of national parks and then dumped the blame on the opposition party.

Mr. Gingrich never really recovered, and Mr. Clinton went on to win a second term.

While it is much too early to draw firm comparisons, Mr. Gingrich's successor as House speaker, Dennis Hastert, a man of much less bombast and egotism, is already sending out signs of overreaching in a way that could offer a life raft to the Democrats.

Exhibit A is Mr. Hastert's decision to buck public support for strong reform of the U.S. intelligence community following 9/11 and subsequent intelligence failings.

Nose-counters on both sides of the aisle in the House concluded there were ample votes available between the Democrats and a minority of the Republicans to pass the compromise House-Senate version of the bill. But Mr. Hastert pulled the legislation off the House floor in the face of substantial GOP opposition.

He justified his action on grounds that "a majority of the majority" in the House was against the compromise, which included immigration policies and control over military intelligence not to the liking of some House Republican leaders.

Mr. Hastert has for some time made clear that he sees his role as speaker reflecting the legislative wishes of most House GOP members. "The job of speaker," he said in a speech last year, "is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority."

Mr. Hastert pulled the intelligence bill down even after President Bush had expressed support, albeit without making any strong effort to win passage. Mr. Hastert says the matter can be revisited, and a big question is how strenuously Mr. Bush will move to bring a "majority of the majority" in line or persuade Mr. Hastert to change his mind.

Insisting that most House Republicans back this or other approved legislation is another way of saying Democratic support isn't wanted unless it only puts some icing on a cake already baked by the Republicans. The approach does not augur well for a second term in which Mr. Bush has said he hopes to be more of the uniter that he promised to be; he failed at uniting in his first term.

When Mr. Gingrich overreached after his "revolution" in 1994, there was a Democrat in the White House to slap him down. Mr. Clinton came off a hero to voters who were outraged about national parks being closed and services being reduced, leaving the Republicans as the villains.

This time, a Republican president may not be equally willing to lock horns with his party brethren in the House if they continue to hold to the Hastert approach of pleasing "a majority of the majority," even at the cost of deep-sixing legislation with such strong public support.

The Democrats may not be able to make of this blatantly partisan attitude what Mr. Clinton did of Mr. Gingrich's bulldog tactics, but they're certain to try.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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