Analysis: The Republicans' Three Choices
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (April 13) -- President Bill Clinton is leading Democrats in a moderate direction, and they seem happy to follow him. Maybe a few of them are worried about losing their souls, but for most Democrats, it's no big deal.
Republican leaders would like to mainstream the GOP as well. But that's turning out to be a much more difficult proposition.
Congressional Republicans have three options. And they each have perils.
Option one: do nothing. Doing nothing doesn't sound like a bad idea. The economy is booming. There's no crisis. The voters don't want any big new agendas.
Maybe that's why Congress, currently in recess for two weeks, has only 89 legislative days scheduled this year, fewer than any year in recent memory. The theory is, do nothing, take credit for the good times and everybody gets re- elected. But that's a risky strategy. Democrats are certain to run against the "do nothing" Congress.
"Up until now, and we are three months and counting, there has been nothing accomplished," Rep. Dick Gephardt complained earlier this month. "We are naming airports and buildings."
The Republican leadership decided to do nothing on campaign finance reform and took a lot of heat for it -- from angry Republicans.
"This process is just truly an unbelievable outrage," Rep. Christopher Shays complained.
Option two: make deals. In his new book, House Speaker Newt Gingrich defines a Republican agenda. It's a pragmatic, problem-solving agenda, and it's not so far from President Clinton's agenda.
"We have very big challenges," Gingrich said in a recent CBS interview. "As I mentioned in the last chapter in the book, we want to win the war on drugs and violence. We want to reform education and learning. We want to use the surpluses to save Social Security and give the baby boomers and their children a better retirement plan with more income. And then we want to modernize government to cut taxes by about a third over the next decade ... Focusing on that everyday as speaker is more than a full-time job."
To do those things congressional Republicans will have to make deals with President Clinton. But every time Republicans make a deal, conservatives complain about a sell-out.
"There was a time when I think some of the Republicans, at least, had certain issues they would die for, if necessary, you know, for their country," Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation said on CNN's "Inside Politics" last month. "Now most of them, not all of them, but most of them, are negotiable on practically everything. So it's not clear what they really believe in."
One measure that easily passed the House this year was a huge highway spending bill. It drew howls of protest from fiscal conservatives. Rep. John Kasich called the bill "a hog."
Option three: take a stand. Social conservatives are not just urging Republicans to take a stand on moral issues. They're demanding it.
Focus on the Family leader James Dobson has condemned Republican congressional leaders for what he calls their "moral and philosophical collapse." Dobson has written a letter to his supporters saying, "I believe a Republican meltdown is preferable to enabling the present disregard for the moral agenda to continue."
That's a threat, and other conservatives are backing it.
"I feel the time is now for a set of ideas to be promoted even if that makes some of my Republican friends here in Washington uncomfortable," said Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council.
One of those ideas -- of great importance to conservatives -- is President Clinton's moral character.
"If the allegations that have been made against the president are true, he should resign," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.)
Conservatives came to power in 1994 on a wave of popular anger at President Clinton. The country has changed its mind about Clinton. But conservatives have not.
In fact, Clinton's current popularity outrages them. And worst of all, Clinton co-opts popular conservative ideas like welfare reform and a balanced budget. That just pushes conservatives further to the right, which is exactly where Clinton wants them.