April 12, 2015
IN his weekly radio address in mid April President Clinton lamented that his anti-terrorism bill had been watered down and argued that “we need the real thing.” When the bill was in conference, Democrats worked to add provisions to give it “some teeth.” Rep. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), a liberal’s liberal, complained that “there’s a lot that should be in this bill that’s not.” Clinton FBI Director Louis Freeh, meanwhile, argued that a federal law-enforcement review commission provided for in the bill would have “a chilling effect on those charged with vigorously enforcing the law.” What all these newly tough-on-crime Democrats were complaining about were provisions either deleted from the bill or added to it at the behest of Republicans like freshman Rep. Bob Barr (Ga.).
Barr helped torpedo the initial Clinton version of the bill last year, then in March stripped down further a compromise version he had worked out with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. “The traditional forces of big government say, ‘There’s a problem, let government fix it,”‘ explains Barr. “And if it’s law enforcement, traditionally Republicans said, ‘Give law enforcement whatever it wants.’ The process whereby this bill became law is recognition that there really are new forces at work in the Congress on behalf of the people.” New, indeed. As Clinton touts his cops-on-the-street plan and talks tough on assault weapons, Republicans are in danger of losing their grip on the crime issue for the first time since 1968.
The Dole campaign is getting most of the blame for the GOP’s current funk. But the Republican predicament has been a party-wide effort with roots far deeper than a stumbling presidential candidate. The GOP Congress has operated with a reckless disregard for its own political health. In cases like the anti-terrorism bill, it has succumbed to the misplaced enthusiasms of its well-intentioned and energetic freshman class. In others, like the balanced-budget fight, it has been seduced by its own airy triumphalism. And in still others, like affirmative action, it has been wary of offending polite opinion. “The Bush Administration in drag,” is how one House member describes a GOP Congress so weakened it now cowers before the minimum wage.
It is impossible to overestimate the damage done by the GOP’s fixation on the balanced budget, which came at the instigation not of Dole, but of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The fight left Clinton looking both principled and reasonable, while shattering the GOP’s credibility, a political dynamic that has been at work ever since. Dole Chief of Staff Sheila Burke recently tried to cheer up a meeting of long-faced Republican staffers by noting that Republicans have had a pretty good couple of weeks. In one sense they had: meaningful habeas-corpus reforms signed into law; that decade-old will-o’-the-wisp, the line-item veto, finally a reality; a new farm bill that is flawed but that nonetheless represents progress. The trouble is that none of this matters. The President is riding so high he can flip almost anything to his advantage.
An effective counter-thrust to the minimum wage, the package may finally get Republicans talking again about economic growth. And at least it’s playing offense, which Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour realizes is half the answer. But unless Bob Dole gets out of Washington he will never shake free of the sort of Democratic tactics that have been tripping him up. And, at a deeper level, unless the Republican Party regains confidence in its own ideas it won’t be able to defend itself against proposals even as discredited as the minimum wage. “I think it’s the minority mentality,” says Rep. Jim Talent (R., Mo.). “I think it’s a creeping sense people have that the last election was really some fluke and the Left has some divine right to govern and will no matter what we do or say.”