Cheers and Some Fears on Capitol Hill

By Eliza Newlin Carney and National Journal

August 10, 1996

On the one hand, Republicans who took control of the House and Senate last year have defined the agenda for the party and, some would argue, for the nation. Their stated goals--reining in the federal government, balancing the budget, reforming welfare and defending traditional family values--form the core of Dole's campaign. Even Clinton--rhetorically at least--has backed key parts of the GOP agenda.

On the other hand, Capitol Hill Republicans are plagued by charges of extremism that have frayed their relations with Dole and given Democrats a shot at winning back the House. The House Republican Contract With America, which made such a splash early in the 104th Congress, was quickly overshadowed by GOP lawmakers' role in the budget stalemate and the ensuing government shutdown.

House Republicans, in particular, have discovered the perils of reaching too far, too fast. Their commander in chief, Speaker Gingrich, is hugely unpopular in the polls. The architects of the contract badly overestimated the electorate's appetite for change, some political analysts say. A June Washington Post poll suggested that key swing groups, including senior citizens and white Catholics, are fleeing from the House Republicans.

``There has been a fundamental flip-flop here in the [voters'] views of the Republican Party and of Congress,'' Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, said.

Many voters, he added, view congressional Republicans as ``too partisan, too ideological, too intolerant and too conservative. Maybe that's not fair. Maybe that's a caricature of the Republicans. But that's what the voters think.''

So what happened to the GOP revolution? Many Capitol Hill Republicans argue that their agenda, as articulated in the contract, is as popular as ever. ``Nobody's going to run away from the Contract With America,'' a Republican congressional leadership aide promised.

Many Republicans acknowledge, though, that while their message may have been popular, it was badly delivered. "I think what the congressional Republicans have done has exceeded any reasonable expectation. We have won the debate on substance,'' Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, a leading GOP moderate, said. ``We have been edged out on style.''

Republicans both on and off Capitol Hill have set out to tone down their rhetoric and put a human face on GOP leaders and issues. At the party's convention, in an aggressive television advertising campaign and on Capitol Hill, Republican officials will make a self-conscious effort to highlight how GOP policies help average Americans.

It's an open question whether efforts to polish the congressional Republicans' image will work their magic by November. While party leaders remain confident that they'll increase their majority in both the House and the Senate, Democrats have been adept at exploiting Republican weaknesses.

Despite a whirlwind of votes on the contract and some major legislative accomplishments, including dramatic changes in farm policy, telecommunications law and welfare reform, Republicans have taken many lumps for their performance during the 104th Congress.

Having claimed Capitol Hill as the new center of governance, they took the blame when the budget stalemate shut down the government. The Republicans' austere budget, their talk of a revolution and their assault on environmental programs scared many voters, political observers say.

More than anything, the GOP's attempts to curb the growth of medicare have created damaging fallout. ``They took on the growth of medicare when the groundwork had not really been laid to do so,'' William Kristol, editor and publisher of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, said in an interview.

``The Republicans were acting out of good motives. They wanted to balance the budget. But it was probably a mistake to allow that to become the central issue of American politics by September of 1995, '' Kristol added.

Now panic has set in among vulnerable Capitol Hill Republicans, and it is compounded by some GOP lawmakers' lack of confidence in Dole. Dole has distanced himself from his former colleagues, some House Members complain. And they contend that he has failed to embrace a congressional agenda that they claim still enjoys wide public support.

``Bob Dole is at the moment not running on the Republican congressional agenda,'' said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., a leading freshman advocate of a balanced budget. ``He's simply not doing it. Now, if you ask what he is running on, I have to candidly say, I don't know.'' On some issues, he added, Dole ``is running against the congressional agenda. And I think that's a grave mistake.''

Dole's getting an earful of advice from Republicans on Capitol Hill. RNC chairman Barbour and Dole campaign officials meet regularly with House and Senate Members to map out strategy and to craft a coherent GOP message. Congressional leaders have been key architects of the tax cut plan that's emerging as a centerpiece of Dole's campaign.

Even as the presidential campaign heats up, some argue that it's the congressional wing that controls the party's destiny this fall. ``Just as the victory in '94 defined the successes of 1995, the failures of '95 have now carried over into '96,'' Kristol said. ``Dole may be a weak candidate. . . but it is very much the triumph and tragedy of Gingrich and his colleagues that is the dominant political story.''

That could hurt Dole this fall, though Capitol Hill Republicans forcefully deny it. They blame a favorite target--the national news media--for GOP lawmakers' perceived troubles. ``Without question, the majority of our [freshman] class always had support at home for what we were doing,'' said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., a liaison between the freshmen and the GOP leadership. ``So the only time we felt we were doing a lousy job was when we were inside the Beltway.''

Republicans also blame the AFL-CIO's $35 million pro-Democrat advertising and political mobilization campaign, along with the Democratic National Committee's ``issue'' ads linking Dole with Gingrich.

The slippage in GOP poll numbers ``was a product not of the contract but of Clinton and his advertising arms giving out false information on a massive level regarding what our medicare proposal was,'' Gingrich's spokesman Tony Blankley said.

As for the Speaker, Blankley said that ``Newt is a special case.'' While acknowledging that Gingrich has been bruised by a barrage of Democratic ethics complaints, Blankley said, ``Back home he's doing very well.''

The same is true for dozens of House and Senate Republicans, who may suffer in the polls as a group but remain popular in their districts.

There's little question, though, that winning broad, national support for Capitol Hill Republicans' agenda has proved tougher than many lawmakers expected. In part, that's because the Congress is so diverse that Republicans there rarely speak with one voice, particularly at election time. Also, attempting to govern the nation from Capitol Hill, as Gingrich set out to do, may be a losing battle.

``The House and the Senate are not created to lead,'' said James Thurber, director of the American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. ``They are created to represent.''

``I think the Republicans lost the budget debate because they overplayed their hand,'' said William F. Connelly, a politics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. ``And they overplayed their hand because they were convinced that following the '94 election, they had created congressional government for the first time in a century--and that the center of government was not only the Congress but the House of Representatives.''

For all their influence in steering the GOP course, Capitol Hill Republicans will have a low profile at the party's national convention except for Rep. Molinari, a moderate. ``Cigar-smoking, middle-aged blue suits are not going to be featured front and center,'' a GOP leadership aide said.

But Members are helping the GOP ticket in other ways. Lawmakers with solid support back home, such as Rep. Jennifer B. Dunn, R-Wash., are planning get-out-the-vote drives on behalf of Dole. ``There are certain states where we will need help from the presidential campaign. There are other states where we will give help to the presidential campaign,'' Dunn said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have also donated unprecedented sums to party campaign committees. Connie Mack III of Florida is one of several Senators who have donated generously from their own campaign funds to the party. Mack gave $250,000.

Gingrich is one of at least three House leaders who have given $250,000 to the RNC, as part of a massive House drive to raise money for ads touting congressional Republicans' successes. The $8 million campaign, run by the National Republican Congressional Committee in conjunction with the RNC and state party committees, will help the whole GOP ticket, said NRCC chairman Bill Paxon of New York.

House and Senate Republicans have become convinced that their agenda won't fly without a strong presidential candidate. ``At the end of the day, you can't lead the nation from the Congress,'' Shadegg said. ``I think it's extremely important for us to hold the Congress because there's immediate authority here to initiate and to act. But I think to lead the nation, you have to have the presidency.''

By Eliza Newlin Carney and National Journal

August 10, 1996