GOP's Agenda Pleases Backers
By Thomas B. Edsall
Facing the long shot threat of losing control of the House, Republican congressional leaders have adopted a legislative program designed to boost Election Day turnout among social conservatives and speed the flow of campaign cash from the corporate community.
"I'm very happy with the agenda," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a key ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "I can't think of anything that, if the goal was to get your turnout higher, the Republicans aren't doing."
"They are really gambling," Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the GOP strategy. "Clearly, they are playing to their base. Whether that is enough, is another question."
The conservative Christian movement now gives the GOP the strongest Election Day vote of any major constituency, and the House leadership has taken up, or scheduled votes on, a number issues important to this group, including legislation toughening the enforcement of parental-notification abortion laws, banning late-term abortions, cutting off funds for the enforcement of an executive order against federal employment discrimination against homosexuals and supporting education savings accounts.
For business, the House, which has passed bankruptcy and product liability reform legislation, is scheduled to take up key trade measures backed by major exporting and importing corporations, including most-favored-nation status for China, financing for the International Monetary Fund and "fast track" trade authority for the president.
And after the August break, House Republican leaders plan to consider tax legislation that appeals to both religious and business groups: reductions in the so-called marriage penalty tax, cuts in the capital gains tax and the possible elimination of the inheritance tax.
These aspects of the Republican agenda reflect the expectation that the 1998 election may set a record for low turnout.
Declining voter participation, according to strategists from both parties, will turn congressional contests into "a battle of the bases," in the words of conservative activist Keith Appell. Republicans in Congress, Appell said, "are doing whatever they can to move their base, and it will pay off big-time this fall."
Jim Wilkinson, who helps run political operations for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), said, "Strategically, there is no doubt our coalition is coming together. . . . We're kind of pumped right now."
Mark Gersh, Washington director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, an arm of the Democratic Party, said Republicans have selected issues that individually may have public support, including enforcement of parental-consent abortion laws and a ban on late-term abortions. The danger, he said, is when these and other stands are viewed together.
"I believe we have gone overboard on this [viewing the 1998 election as a turnout battle between social conservatives and liberal Democrats], and I believe the Republicans have the potential to endanger themselves. They are taking positions which individually are not unpopular or stupid, but the combination of all of them makes them seem right wing," Gersh said.
Without endorsing Gersh's analysis, GOP pollster Bill McInturff said that instead of focusing on the conservative base vote, Republicans need to make sure Democrats do not have effective issues to use against them, which might attract moderate GOP voters. "The social conservative base is just fine," he said. "There is not one shred of data that this party is in trouble with the social conservative part of our party."
McInturff said poll data show the turnout projection for social conservatives is substantially higher than for any other major group of voters, and that these "moral values" voters are inclined to pick a Republican candidate over a Democrat, 64 percent to 16 percent.
With the conservative base relatively secure, McInturff said the top priority of Republican leaders should be to propose credible tobacco and health maintenance organization revisions that would mute Democratic efforts to make these issues the focus of the November elections. "We can do it by stopping them on tobacco and HMO stuff. If Social Security is handled correctly, they have nothing, and we can grind them down by weight of resources," he said.
In the meantime, business and religious conservatives are rejoicing over the final legislative push of the 105th Congress.
R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who had been critical of what he described as the protectionist leanings of the GOP-controlled Congress, said recently: "I think they clearly are responding to the concerns of business and responding to what may be on the horizon economically."
Along similar lines, Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition said, "We are pleased with a lot of what we see. We don't view the obstacle as existing on Capitol Hill; we view the obstacle as existing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said Republican success in maintaining business and social conservative support this year is comparable to similar success two decades ago, in 1978, just two years before the ideological battle that produced the nomination of Ronald Reagan.
The GOP leadership "has succeeded in papering over the splits [in the party] adequately. Both the business community and social conservatives have a huge stake in retaining the Republican Congress against Clinton, and that overwhelms everything else," Kristol said. "They can delay the real showdown on a lot of issues, and that debate is likely to occur in the run up to 2000" and the contest for the GOP presidential nomination.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company