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Me-Too Politics

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, August 14, 1998; Page A25

Me-too politics perfects the art of copying the views of the other side in the hope of winning elections. Ideologues disdain me-too politics. But it often works. This fall, Republicans may me-too the Democrats to death.

That strategy is already obvious on the health care bill of rights for users of health maintenance organizations. Democrats thought they owned this issue. But before they left town for the summer recess, House Republicans made sure they passed their own version of HMO protections.

The provisions of the Republican bill aren't as strong or sweeping as those in a bill Democrats have been pushing, a point pressed by President Clinton during a campaign-style swing to Kentucky this week. But saying the Republican bill is inadequate is not as powerful as saying the Republicans want no bill at all. As Republican pollster Bill McInturff put it, "In America, even a flawed something beats nothing."

McInturff is a leading Republican advocate for what he describes as the "reduce the juice" strategy for November. The idea is to take the power out of Democratic issues rather than confront them. With many incumbents, ample money and the drag of the president's Monica Lewinsky distraction on the Democrats' ability to project themes, Republicans should do just fine in holding Congress and most statehouses, if they avoid picking too many fights.

"Politics is about two things," says McInturff. "Mobilizing your voters and not mobilizing the other side. They're both valid goals." The key to winning an election "is not just what you do for your own folks, it's also what you take off the table to deny the other side the capacity to develop their message."

Democrats, McInturff goes on, "want to paint us as the pro-tobacco, pro-HMO, anti-minimum wage and anti-Social Security party." That being the case, he says, Republicans need to pass an HMO bill of rights and a "limited tobacco and drug bill" and "not engage in a substantive debate on the future of Social Security."

This last piece of advice will go down badly with ardent Republican advocates of partially privatizing Social Security. They want to build popular support for their ideas. McInturff counters that there isn't enough time for that between now and Election Day. "Who, in 60 days, with an electorate that will be 30 percent over the age of 65, wants to engage Democrats on the topic of Social Security?"

His view has substantive implications: that Americans are reluctant to support radical changes in Social Security. This goes against the Washington conventional wisdom that privatization is gaining enormous popularity. If privatization is so popular, why not use it in an election? If its advocates shun the issue this fall, their silence will stand as eloquent testimony to the public's doubts about their idea.

McInturff's theory also acknowledges up front that there is real "juice" in the health care and tobacco issues. The education issue is juicy too. That's why Republicans running for governorships, incumbents and challengers alike, have been proposing new education initiatives -- and new spending.

In California, Democrat Gray Davis hopes to defeat Republican Dan Lungren by riding voter dissatisfaction with the state's public schools. Davis has been pushing an education proposal for much of the campaign, but Lungren now has one of his own.

Davis consultant Tom O'Donnell complains that Lungren's plan is close enough to Davis's that it should be seen as nothing more than an effort to "neutralize" the education issue, "the most important in the state." Lungren's aides deny me-tooism, but they'd be perfectly happy to deprive Davis of his best issue.

The lesson, says Democratic pollster Fred Yang, is that "success breeds imitation: What President Clinton did in 1996 in neutralizing Republican wedge issues -- taxes, crime, welfare -- the Republicans are trying to do now on education. They're not trying to win on this issue. They're trying to co-opt it."

Me-too politics provides an excellent barometer as to what politicians think the voters are worried about. There was a time when Democrats, in an effort to seem more conservative than they were, did a lot of me-tooing of Republicans. Democratic candidates still do their share by proposing various "targeted" tax cuts.

But this year the predominant mood is not anti-government. Voters seem to favor modestly more active government, especially in the areas of health and education. Polls also show that voters are inclined to forgo big tax cuts in the interest of protecting Social Security. To know where politics is going, just watch who is me-tooing whom.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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