In 1997 the net seemed to be closing in on the Clinton Administration. Congressional Republicans, pushed along by a gung-ho group of young House members, were refusing to increase the government’s authority to borrow unless the President signed a balanced budget. If that threatened a U.S. default, so be it; it was a price worth paying to get Clinton to do the right thing. The very idea made the Clinton Administration squeal: Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin warned in September that failing to raise the limit “could cause profound damage to our country,” as even the possibility of a default would “do permanent damage to our credit standing.”

A look at today’s budgetary madness.
A look at today's budgetary madness.
A look at today’s budgetary madness.

Four months later the debt limit still hasn’t been raised, President Clinton hasn’t signed a balanced budget, and the nation’s credit rating is just fine. As soon as the President vetoed the GOP’s debt-limit bill in mid November, Rubin tapped federal pension funds to cover Treasury’s obligations, a dubious move that he himself called “unprecedented.” But it completed a political hat trick. Rubin’s disingenuous warnings of the dire consequences of GOP tactics had created the impression that Republicans are “extreme”; the defense of a possible default by some Republicans tended to confirm it; and, finally, Rubin’s easy evasion of the limit undercut one of the pillars of the GOP strategy of confrontation. “That was our ace in the hole,” says one Senate aide.

And, as it turns out, it all was exquisitely planned. A memo to Rubin from as early as June 27 included a nine-page attachment: “Outline of Debt Limit Strategy.” The document calls for “Close project management throughout phases” and “Ongoing briefings and centralized messages” for “administration officials.” The heavily edited memo — entire pages have been cut out — is one of a cache of documents the Joint Economic Committee has obtained from Treasury that suggest the department always knew it had a way out of the debt squeeze and never had any intention of working with Congress, which would have been the responsible thing to do. Instead, it orchestrated a shameless scare campaign, both to score political points and, apparently, to seduce the GOP into over-reliance on the debt limit. It worked.

The Republican charge that started with the Contract with America has turned into not quite a retreat, but a haphazard assault on a President who has outflanked their every attack. The latest Clinton trump card was producing a seven-year balanced budget scored by the Congressional Budget Office. The proposal is bogus (all the savings are put off until 2000 and beyond), but it puts the GOP in the position of rejecting a budget that meets its loudly trumpeted criteria: seven years, CBO-scored. What to do? “First, we don’t even have an agreement that we need a strategy,” says one distraught GOP operative. “Second, if we had a strategy, we don’t have the wherewithal to get other people in the party to buy in. Third, if we did, we don’t have the discipline to hold it for more than two and a half days because these [guys] will run off and do something different. So, there’s real trouble.”

 

The GOP disarray has several sources, some fundamental, others involving poor tactics. The deepest cause is that after the 1994 election Republicans believed their own rhetoric: that their victory was inevitable, a product of the shifting tides of history. So, just as a stunned White House and a new Democratic minority were willing to do anything to effect a comeback in 1996 — including lie — the GOP was determined to govern; it embarked on a “historic” budget-balancing effort that in some cases meant suppressing partisan self-interest — on Medicare votes, for instance. From the start, hot-button issues like crime were given a back seat to a good-faith effort to make the numbers come out right. While the White House played cynical politics, the GOP did exactly the opposite.

Emblematic of the new attitude was the exclusion of Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour from crucial Gingrich – Dole strategy meetings. Barbour had played a key role in recent GOP successes, from the campaign on the Contract with America in the fall of 1994 to the GOP’s public-education drive on Medicare last summer. All were party-wide efforts undertaken with an eye to the political bottom line. He helped make the Dole – Gingrich meetings happen. But early last fall Barbour was told he was no longer welcome (fingers point to Dole’s chief of staff, Sheila Burke, for prompting the decision). While the White House tapped its top political talent for the budget fight, says one RNC insider, “we brought in the green eyeshades.” And it showed.

TAKE the continuing resolution (CR) Republicans passed to keep the government running in November. The CR included a provision to increase Medicare premiums; it was meant to avoid a glitch that would have had premiums senselessly drop, then rise again in 1996. Clinton predictably ignored the details, vetoing the CR and slamming the higher premiums. “At the beginning I was very, very afraid of doing this, of putting it on the CR,” is how House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer explains the decision. “And then I began to look at the options and I said, Well, wait a minute. If we don’t do it, it’s going to be worse in May in an election year. And so we might as well take the heat now rather than in May. And then toward the end of our leadership meetings I began to look at it further and say, Wait a minute. [Clinton’s] going to veto this CR anyhow. Why should we take the heat for putting this on there and giving him an excuse that will cover up his real reason for vetoing it?”

That’s what happened. At the root of the GOP confusion on this and other matters was a misreading of Clinton. After the elections Republicans proclaimed the President “irrelevant.” Some conservatives even argued that it didn’t matter if he were re-elected. A related — and more understandable — misapprehension was that the President would move to the center (“triangulate”) with an eye to his re-election. Instead, he shifted left and proved not just oblivious to good-government considerations, but more willing to play dirty than even partisan Republicans had imagined. And as Republicans wrangled last fall with unavoidable issues like timber sales in the Tongass National Forest, the Administration simply blew them away on communications. “When they come out you can feel it,” says one top GOP aide. “You can lash yourself to the mast.”

This obliterated another leg of Republican strategy, which was attempting to govern through appropriations bills. As the balanced budget squeezed out the rest of the GOP agenda, the appropriations bills — meant, in theory, to deal only with spending issues — became vehicles for conservative policy in areas ranging from abortion to grant reform. The idea was that Clinton would swallow an uncomfortable measure or two to preserve funding for essential functions of government. Not so. The President broadcast his intentions on one of the first appropriations bills to reach his desk, a responsible bill funding the legislative branch at reduced levels. Clinton vetoed it solely to score points against Congress — and got away with it. That pattern has been repeated even after Republican concessions, let alone further attempts to shoe-horn controversial policy into bills.

The debt-limit misfire, the ease with which the President avoided responsibility for vetoed appropriations bills and the two partial government shutdowns, as well as his unexpected determination not to cut a deal, had the effect of handing the advantage of constancy to the White House. Republicans were left angling for new traction every day. Newt Gingrich in particular turned out to be less than a rock of resolve. “He won’t stay in one spot,” says one close observer. “Therefore we lost consistency. We kept changing our message and we spoke in Washington language.” The final irony was that the poll numbers (all the Administration seems to care about) were beginning to turn against Clinton in both shutdowns just as Republicans called it quits; the GOP got all the pain and none of the gain.

Barring a breakthrough with the White House (Republicans are still threatening to hold the debt limit hostage), the question for Republicans should be how to put the balanced budget and the remaining appropriations bills behind them. The sooner the better. Then they can move on to what they eschewed last year: focused assaults on Democratic vulnerabilities like crime and affirmative action. So far, perhaps the GOP’s most politically clever bill is the ban on partial-birth abortions, tight legislation that appeals to the GOP base and at the same time puts President Clinton in a box. It was this kind of politics that former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell specialized in before the 1992 elections, as he ignored the imperatives of governing and forced George Bush into a series of tough vetoes. If the GOP does the same this year, the tides of history will take care of themselves.

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