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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clinton Hopes for Better Coordination With GOP : Politics: President to involve Republicans at outset of negotiations on health care reform and free trade pact.

August 08, 1993|JACK NELSON | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — President Clinton, with the bruising budget fight behind him and major new battles over trade and health care reform about to begin, is developing a strategy to cope with a political process that Republicans and Democrats alike say has grown meaner and more bitterly partisan than at any time in their memory.

In the cutthroat struggles that saw his economic stimulus program fail and his deficit reduction package barely survive, the President tried to go it alone with the Democratic majorities in Congress, virtually ignoring Republicans. The strategy backfired: Republicans, already pressured by their leaders to stand together, opposed Clinton with unprecedented unity.

Unable to build majorities among centrists from both parties, the White House had to zigzag back and forth, offering a spending cut here and a spending increase there as it bargained desperately for Democratic fringe votes.

Recognizing that he cannot afford another such ordeal, Administration officials said, Clinton will now try to work with Republicans from the outset on health care reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement--two politically explosive issues on which Democrats are deeply divided.

Already, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, head of the Administration's health care reform task force, has spent considerable time consulting with Republicans on the issue. In addition, the President has said he plans to name more Republicans to his Administration, and aides said he is considering naming a Republican to a key role on health care.

Whether the President's belated attempt to reach out to the opposition will work is far from clear. The battles of the past seven months have left their scars; Republicans may rebuff any Clinton overtures as opportunistic. Moreover, substantive and political differences between the parties on these issues are not easy to reconcile.

Casting a shadow over the whole process is the extraordinary level of rancor and mean-spiritedness that now pervades the political process in Washington.

"We must have a change in the bitter partisanship if government is going to work," said David Gergen, the former aide to three Republican presidents who recently signed on as counselor to Clinton. "It's been extraordinary not to have Republican support on the budget. It's never happened before. The lesson of the stimulus package defeat was that you must have bipartisanship on major issues."

Gergen is not alone in believing that the political atmosphere has grown more "poisonous" in recent years and now is a major obstacle to dealing with national problems.

Partisanship is "much more viciously personal today," according to political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "It's become a little like 'The War of the Roses,' " he said, referring to a movie depicting savage, escalating fights between a husband and wife in the midst of a divorce.

"After a while, the whole thing gets so focused on screwing the other guy that anything else--cooperation or even civility--goes out the window."

Longtime activists in both parties say they share that view, though each side tends to point the finger at the other.

Former Republican Party Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. blames much of the meanness on bitterly negative presidential campaigns. He said partisanship intensified this year when Democrats came to power after 12 years of GOP rule "with a screw-the-Republicans attitude that made them fighting mad."

Other Republicans accused Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) of engaging in ruthless, behind-the-scenes maneuvering--even before Clinton's election--that still rankles the GOP.

Although quiet and relatively soft-spoken in public, Mitchell was described by Republicans as "tough and mean" in his tactics during formulation of the 1990 federal budget accord, in which President George Bush abandoned his "no new taxes" pledge before Democrats would support the rest of his proposal.

For their part, Democrats and even some Republicans said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has been unusually sharp-tongued and confrontational because he harbors ambitions to run for President in 1996. Even some Republicans say they disapprove of Dole's hard-edged partisanship.

One who served as a top aide to Bush said: "I'm surprised Dole is that vitriolic. It's just not healthy for the body politic, for the parties or for the people."

Former Democratic Party Chairman John White said "the mean-spiritedness" of today's Washington is best exemplified by the venomous debate in the House last month when Democrats rejected Republican demands to release documents from an internal investigation of the House post office.

Democrats said the Justice Department opposed the move on nonpolitical grounds, fearing release of the documents could jeopardize prosecution of possible wrongdoers.

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