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  •   GOP Fears Compounding Negative Image

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 10, 1999; Page A14

    Republican strategists are worried that the public's negative view of their party goes far beyond the negative reaction to the GOP's role in impeachment.

    Impeachment, they say, is part of a growing record of miscalculation dating to 1995 that reinforced the image of a party defiant of -- if not claiming to be superior to -- the public will, deeply opposed to President Clinton, driven by a minority of intensely partisan interest groups and ideologues.

    The end of the impeachment inquiry will not mean a new dawn for the GOP; instead, in this view, the Republican Party faces a long, difficult struggle to restore the credibility it initially built up in the 1980s, and then again in the 1994 election, only to be steadily squandered since then.

    "We have been the British army: the best troops and the worst generals," a GOP media specialist said. "We pick fights and run away, we pick the wrong fights and then run away. We should at least make the enemy take some casualties before we retreat, but we don't even do that."

    Tony Fabrizio, who polled for GOP nominee Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and will likely work for Elizabeth Hanford Dole, his wife, said: "They [Democrats] have become less doctrinaire and we have become more doctrinaire. When they were the hard-core ideologues and the purists, they got their brains beaten in. We are on that road."

    Many Republicans worry that leaders of the drive to impeach Clinton have reinforced the view that the party is out of sync with the public.

    The anti-Clinton GOP leaders argued that their case is strong but the American people have either failed to recognize its seriousness or that voters have become morally lax in judging public officials. Some strategists say there is another interpretation far more threatening to the GOP: The American people do recognize that what Clinton has acknowledged doing is very serious, but reject impeachment because of distrust of the GOP as an arbiter of morality.

    "These polls may not mean the collapse of nation's moral fiber, they may just mean that people don't trust a bunch like Ken Starr, Henry Hyde and Bob Barr to make their judgments for them," one Republican commented.

    In 1994, the GOP took over the House and Senate with a message portraying the Democratic Party as dominated by liberal special interests supportive of a corrupting welfare system and of social programs that defied common sense, determined to use partisan power to overrule the views of the majority of voters.

    After winning power with strong public approval in the polls, Republican congressional leaders within a year lost ground dramatically, shutting down the federal government twice and infuriating the public. What made the shutdowns particularly dangerous tactics was that the public had grown wary of anti-government rhetoric; the shutdowns followed the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168, and widespread disclosures of civilian militias violently opposed to federal authority.

    "Oklahoma City put a human face on people in government and it became harder to sustain the [Rep.] Tom DeLay [R-Tex.] style of attack on government," said University of California San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson.

    The 1995 government shutdowns were forced in behalf of a GOP budget proposal calling for $280 billion in tax cuts and a $280 billion reduction in the rate of spending for a highly popular government program, Medicare.

    "If you were an angry white male in 1994, there were lots of things you were angry about from taxes to gays in the military to Joycelyn Elders [former surgeon general]," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "One thing you were not angry about was Medicare."

    While less noticed by the general public, the House Republican leadership proceeded to initiate some of the most aggressive partisan policies in recent memory, despite the growing demand by voters for constructive, bipartisan approaches to governance.

    Private GOP polls conducted in mid-1997 showed that when voters were asked to identify the most negative aspect of the Republican Party, a strong plurality said it was the party's determination "to force Bill Clinton out of office," and this was before the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal broke.

    These findings stunned Republicans. Their belief in a party committed to tax cuts, free and open markets, family values and respect for authority was not shared by the public, which saw the GOP as "the anti-Clinton party."

    "Clearly the impeachment process has built a negative image for this party that goes beyond this trial and the impeachment itself," GOP pollster Dick Dresner said.

    "There is a sense that our guys have overreached, and have continued to do so since '94. They get elected and they're like a kid in a candy store going too far, too fast," another pollster said. Moreover, with the retirement of the highly visible speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), this pollster said that the problem now is that there is no sense of "who the messenger is; the public no longer sees anyone as the messenger, no one knows or cares who [House Speaker J. Dennis] Hastert [R-Ill.], [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott [R-Miss.] or [Republican National Committee chairman Jim] Nicholson is."

    At least one GOP consultant is anticipating a 2000 election in which Texas Gov. George W. Bush could win the presidency but Republicans lose control of the House. "It would be the first time in history we get a Democratic president replaced with a Republican and one of the two houses goes the other way."

    Compounding GOP problems is that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr remains a wild card, in the eyes of many strategists. "We can bring impeachment to a halt, but Ken Starr will continue, and we will still be screwed," a Republican operative said, noting that Starr is overwhelmingly associated with the Republican Party in the view of the electorate.

    "This isn't like getting out of bed after a bad flu," one GOP operative said, anticipating the tasks facing the party after the impeachment issue is resolved. "It's going to take reconstructive surgery to get back the love and affection of the voters."

    Kristol noted that the issues that formed the core of the GOP agenda have declined in salience. "The meat and potatoes of the Republican Party was anti-communism, the bread and butter was tax cuts, and the appetizers and dessert were crime and welfare. All of these are diminished, or Clinton has come over to the Republican side. What's left are a whole bunch of issues the Republicans haven't figured out," he said.

    Not everyone is as pessimistic, but even those who see light at the end of the tunnel disagree on the strategies to get there.

    Pollster Frank Luntz said it is crucial that Republicans define the ideological differences between the two parties. "It just has to be clear to Americans that the Republican Party is the party of lower taxes. We have lost some of our differences over the past four years. The more the party differentiates itself, the more effective it becomes," he said.

    But Jan van Lohuisen, who conducts surveys for the Republican National Committee, said, "what is going to pull us out of malaise is achieving something and achieving it in bipartisan fashion."

    Kristol said, "The truth is impeachment masked the true weaknesses of the Republican Party. The true nightmare, the true problem, if you are a Republican, is when you look at what the public thinks of the party on issue after issue, it is running 20 points behind [Democrats] on every one."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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