For Fall Races, House GOP Has a Playbook of Sound Bites
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 31, 1998; Page A06
Forget about bipartisan deal-making. House Republican leaders are distributing a strategic plan for the fall campaigns that advocates drawing sharp rhetorical distinctions against Democrats and open pursuit of Clinton administration scandals.
The campaign "playbook," crafted by GOP staff members after polls were conducted in 28 hotly targeted congressional districts, contains handy tips on what to say when and where. Incumbents and challengers alike are urged to clip out the catchy phrases and insert them directly into speeches, columns and letters to constituents.
For the lawmaker who feels badly about not passing campaign finance reform, the party leaders offer this response: "In 1996, Democrats accepted foreign contributions to their campaigns, rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, and may have traded national security decisions for campaign contributions. Let's find out why current laws were broken before we trample on free speech and the First Amendment."
When asked about drugs and crime, Republicans should say: "Until President Clinton took over the White House, America was winning the war on drugs."
And if, as the playbook authors expect, Democrats carp about the plethora of toxic waste sites in America, Republicans should reply: "The Republican Congress has an impressive record of environmental achievement. Democrat scare tactics can't obscure the truth."
For months, Republicans have been torn over how to handle an expected report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr on allegations that President Clinton lied about an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and urged her to cover it up.
The playbook has a suggestion: "We have an obligation to find out the truth about whether crimes have been committed and national security compromised," it notes, suggesting Republicans tell voters: "Democrats are blindly protecting their president without regard to the truth . . . we have a constitutional obligation to examine the results."
While a number of GOP strategists have warned against politicizing the investigation, Ed Gillespie, a key GOP consultant, said Republicans can still present Starr's findings to voters "and let them decide."
The heart of the party message, according to the playbook, is to claim credit for the economic prosperity, reduced crime rates and cleaner environment America now enjoys. "A Republican Congress is improving the quality of life for all Americans," the playbook says, listing: "the first balanced budget in a generation, the first tax cut in 16 years and moving people from welfare to work."
House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (Ohio) said that while polling shows that the public welcomes developments like a balanced budget and welfare reform, voters have yet to give the GOP credit. "There's a lot of ground to be gained in driving home our accomplishments," he said.
Despite assertions that this year's congressional races will be won primarily on local matters, GOP strategists said they were worried about ceding the rhetorical ground to Democrats. "Politics abhors a vacuum and you cannot have a party in an election year without some set messages and themes," Gillespie said. "There are critical differences between the two parties and if you don't define them the other side will."
The detailed talking points will be supplemented with a $37 million advertising blitz this fall. Named "Operation Breakout," the issue advocacy campaign will be paid for with money from secure Republican incumbents and business people.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (Ga.) told House leaders that more than three dozen lawmakers have pledged nearly $5 million to the advertising effort. The Republican National Committee has allotted $5 million to fund issue ads, while the NRCC has put aside $3 million.
Linder is asking high-ranking and unopposed lawmakers to contribute more. In a meeting with Florida Republicans yesterday, he asked unopposed incumbents to support candidates by hosting fund-raising events in their districts.
Five rank-and-file members have pledged $100,000 or more; Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) has vowed to raise $400,000 and Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) recently passed on a check for $105,804.78, exactly half of his campaign account. Some Republicans, such as Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (Fla.) prefer to give directly to candidates.
"That way you can pick and choose campaigns, you can tell where it's going," he said. If lawmakers are not inclined to donate out of a sense of team spirit, leaders are appealing to their sense of self-interest. As one House source recounted: when Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) asked one member to donate, the lawmaker responded that he had yet to secure a spot on a key committee. "Armey said, 'The leadership has made it very clear that those who participate and are team players in this program will be rewarded, and those who do not participate will not.'"
House leaders believe a strong showing by the party will also motivate corporate contributors to stick with the GOP. As Boehner put it: "Everybody wants to be with a winner."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company