For the first time since they were blamed for shutting down the government four years ago, Republicans are scoring political points on the budget, repeatedly going after President Clinton and Democrats as free spenders who want to plunder Social Security.
But while the GOP strategy has succeeded in putting Democrats on the defensive, the Republicans have made little progress in achieving their fiscal goals. Their giant tax cut is dead, they have given Clinton billions of dollars in extra spending, and even their widely touted pledge to keep their hands off Social Security money is being broken, according to most independent budget experts.
Perhaps more worrisome to the GOP, however, the party had made little apparent headway in transforming their budget and Social Security rhetoric into a powerful campaign issue. Several new polls show little evidence of Republican improvement on such topics.
A new survey by The Washington Post shows a decline in public confidence in the GOP's ability to handle the budget surplus--from 46 percent two months ago to only 37 percent now. Confidence in Clinton's handling of the budget dropped as well, from 45 percent to 40 percent.
Meanwhile, a new poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) indicates that a $445,000 Republicans ad campaign aimed at portraying Democrats as shadowy "raiders" of the Social Security program is having little effect on the targeted districts.
According to recent polling by the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, voters in Rep. Shelley Berkley's (D-Nev.) district said they trust the Democrats over Republicans, 41 percent to 28 percent, to protect Social Security. Voters in Rep. James H. Maloney's (D-Conn.) district favored Democrats over the Republicans, 30 percent to 23 percent, to protect Social Security.
"The evidence is the Republicans made zero progress in communicating their themes and attacks through the news media, and that even among the people who have seen the Republican ads are skeptical about the claims they are making," said Geoff Garin, a Democrat, whose firm conducted the poll.
The Republican National Committee's own polling suggests that voters still trust Democrats much more than Republicans--56 percent to 32 percent--to protect Social Security. But the polling also suggests Republicans have made modest gains on the issue in the past two months.
While Democratic pollsters said that Republicans hurt themselves with seniors by their advocacy of a big tax cut, GOP officials also say that their surveys show that older voters prefer their party in congressional races.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said it would take time for his party's stand to resonate with voters. He said the media's portrayal of Republicans violating their pledge not to tap into Social Security had hampered their efforts.
"These things don't appear right away," Davis said. "They appear after weeks and weeks of staying on message."
The Republicans' more aggressive approach on the budget comes after years of politically disastrous efforts to impose their vision of limited government and less federal spending on a president, Democratic opponents and even a large cadre of their own members who resisted or undercut them.
Uncompromising efforts by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to enforce GOP budget priorities after Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 led to vetoed bills and government shutdowns for which voters blamed them, not Clinton. In a closed-door summit with White House officials in early 1996, Gingrich and other leaders wound up in a humiliating retreat, giving Clinton most of the spending he demanded and dropping legislative provisions he opposed.
Last year, GOP leaders once again entered a high-profile, closed-door negotiation with the White House. This time, Republicans touched off a bidding war by demanding a dollar in defense spending for every dollar Clinton got for his domestic priorities. The $20-billion-plus price tag and the spectacle of GOP leaders again caving in to Clinton enraged GOP conservatives; the fallout over the deal played a large part in Gingrich's exit from Congress.
Last year's embarrassment gave GOP leaders a guide to what not to do this year: Instead of leaving difficult bills undone, they would finish every one, avoiding another closed-door summit with Clinton aides.
"Last year was a great learning experience," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.). "Issues that we could have settled with the president for a few billion dollars . . . got wrapped up into an omnibus bill costing us over $20 billion."
The Republicans have also tried hard to use the budget process to their political advantage on Social Security, a traditionally Democratic issue. In years past, the federal government has tapped the surplus money generated by Social Security to help finance deficits in the rest of the budget. But with overall surpluses soaring, Republicans promised they would no longer countenance such a "raid" on Social Security.
GOP pollster Linda DiVall discovered that locking up Social Security revenue in such a manner was a big hit among voters, a fact that Republican members found to be true when they brought it up during appearances back home. "We finally got smart and found a political, emotional hook that would finally control spending up here," said Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
After Clinton vetoed the GOP's $792 billion tax cut plan, the Republicans ratcheted up their rhetoric. In an Oct. 10 appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) talked about the purported Democratic "raid" on Social Security--or something like it--10 separate times.
Such rhetoric obscured tactical retreats by the GOP. Despite their early vow to stick with the strict limits in the 1997 budget plan, spending bills have busted those caps by nearly $31 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Republicans have sought to squeeze under the caps by declaring routine spending for items such as the census a budget emergency, exempt from caps. Republican leaders were also forced to resort to an unprecedented number of budget gimmicks to try to cover up the fact--again, by CBO's count--that they were dipping into the Social Security surplus.
By effectively abandoning the budget caps, Republicans included in their spending measures billions of extra dollars for education, housing, the environment and other programs they once fought to limit. Clinton has already secured much of the spending he wanted in this year's budget; the two sides are arguing only over details.
Democrats scoff at the GOP's efforts on the budget this year, saying that the public is not buying the Republican claims to be protecting Social Security. "This would be like us saying . . . we want to have a huge tax cut for the wealthy," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "It isn't plausible. They have no credibility on the issue."
Independent experts disagreed on how effectively the Republicans have handled the budget this year. William F. Connelly Jr., a professor of politics at Virginia's Washington and Lee University, said Republicans have done better this year because they have been willing to compromise and keep the larger picture in mind.
But Steven Smith, a University of Minnesota political scientist, said that whatever gains the Republicans may claim this year is more than offset by "the losses they've suffered in credibility," because of their aggressive use of accounting gimmicks on the budget.
"It's hard to see that the damage their reputation suffered was worth the price," Smith said.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.