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Republicans and the President

Friday, January 28, 1994; Page A22

DON'T BE surprised if the Republicans try to amend the crime bill to make it a federal offense for a Democrat to use, borrow or steal issues that the Republicans thought were theirs. Most Republicans conceded that Mr. Clinton gave a fine State of the Union speech. But they quickly accused him of intellectual property theft and said the president didn't mean a word of it. "Ronald Reagan speech, Jimmy Carter details," said Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.).

In truth, Mr. Clinton has confounded Republicans not by larceny but by turning rhetoric associated with Republicans to his own purposes. Yes, get people off welfare, Mr. Clinton says, but do so by raising the incomes of the working poor and providing them with health insurance. Yes, make families stronger by, among other things, providing new parents with a little leave time.

It's on the crime issue that the Republicans have the strongest case for Mr. Clinton's movement in their direction – and this is not all to the good. True, Mr. Clinton has long been tough on crime and has supported capital punishment. But his approach has put great emphasis on prevention (federally funded community policing programs, expanded drug treatment and gun control, for example). Mr. Clinton has now gone for even stiffer penalties, notably the provision of the crime bill that would require life imprisonment for those convicted of a third violent felony. With Mr. Clinton occupying so much of their ground, Republicans want to use the very worst features of the crime bill – Draconian mandatory sentences, the needless federalization of a slew of new crimes, death penalties in drug cases not involving a killing – as litmus tests for "toughness." It's a foolish and dangerous bidding war.

On welfare reform, the Republicans have staked out a more constructive position. The House Republicans' welfare proposal contains a fair amount of money for education and child care. There are problems with the plan's proposed cuts in other programs for the poor, but it's at least a substantive suggestion. Still, Republicans are kicking themselves that they didn't make welfare reform an issue when they held the White House. It's Mr. Clinton's issue now.

On health care, the Republican position is evolving. Initially, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole seemed ready to do something big. Now he echoes the "there is no health care crisis" view pioneered by Republican strategist William Kristol. At least one very important Democrat, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, briefly took up the no-crisis cry. Mr. Moynihan has since specified that he should have said that there is not a health care crisis, but that there is a "health insurance crisis."

Mr. Moynihan's reformulation actually helps to clarify what is wrong with Republicans denying a crisis altogether. Many Americans who now have good heath coverage are rightly worried that rising costs will mean much less coverage tomorrow – and maybe none at all. Republicans would be foolhardy to ignore them. Having let Mr. Clinton dominate on welfare reform and make a run at crime, do the Republicans want to let him – and other Democrats such as Mr. Moynihan and Rep. Jim Cooper -- monopolize the heath debate too?

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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