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Partisanship Could Sour GOP Triumph

November 09, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Capitalizing on popular disappointment with President Clinton and anger with Congress that had dropped public confidence in government to a nadir not seen since the Great Depression, Republicans rode to victory Tuesday on a conservative tidal wave greater than the one that battered the Democrats in 1978 and then carried Ronald Reagan to power two years later.

They did so behind a sharply defined message of rolling back government, toughening requirements on welfare recipients, stiffening penalties for criminals, and cutting taxes.

"This is an historic vote," exulted Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. "It is unlike any in two generations."

But sweet as it was for Republicans, it guaranteed an escalation of the bitter partisan warfare that has virtually derailed the Clinton Adminstration and that could ultimately threaten the GOP. In its sweeping victory, the GOP may have set in motion forces it will find almost impossible to tame or control.

Indeed, over the next two years, it will be extraordinarily difficult for either the Republicans or President Clinton to win approval of the kind of agenda that might appease the forces of alienation that dominated the 1994 campaign.

With both Houses closely divided between the parties--and Congress still sharing political power with the President--neither side may be able to advance its ideas, especially if congressional Democrats block GOP initiatives with the same fierce tactics that Republicans used to frustrate Clinton during his first two years.

"The potential for gridlock is 10 times greater, public frustration will increase, and cynicism will increase," said Republican pollster Steve Lombardo.

Complicating the equation is the likelihood that the election results will further polarize Congress itself, with moderate Democrats suffering a disproportionate share of Tuesday's losses and conservative Republicans the big winners. The underlying dynamic makes it possible, if not likely, that by 1996 the public could be sour on both Clinton and the Republican leadership. That could raise the possibility of another third-party challenge for the presidency, and even more unpredictable and unprecedented changes than the country has seen in the tumultuous campaigns of 1992 and 1994.

"You can imagine a third party doing at least as well as it did in 1992," said Gary C. Jacobson, chairman of the political science department at the UC San Diego. "It is hard to imagine a scenario coming out of this election where you would have a more effective government that would make Americans feel better about the people who are governing them."

Even some Republicans agreed that the powerful urge for change that elected Clinton in 1992 and then pulverized Democrats this year could turn against the GOP--or both parties--two years from now, if Americans remain convinced that Washington does not work.

"Republicans this year are being given a window of opportunity . . ," Fred Thompson, a Republican who won a Senate seat in Tennessee, said in an interview just before the vote. "It's a lot, but that's all it is. . . . If we don't do the job, the public is going to go back in the other direction, toward the Democrats, or in a third direction."

For Democrats, the possibility of further twists down the road offered scant consolation for Tuesday's debacle. Especially across the South and border states, the election reflected not only dissatisfaction with Clinton and anger with Congress, but embodied near impenetrable skepticism about the fundamental capacity of government.

Almost everywhere, Republicans--from gubernatorial candidates Jeb Bush in Florida and George W. Bush in Texas to Senate candidates James M. Inhofe in Oklahoma and Thompson in Tennessee--reached back beyond the "kinder, gentler" message of George Bush to the militant faith that Reagan expressed in his first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

The most successful Republican candidates for Congress typically fused that Reaganite anti-government message with a hard line on social issues such as crime and welfare and a Ross Perot-like demand for congressional and political reform, especially term limits.

Political novice Bill Frist, a 42-year-old surgeon who handily defeated three-term Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser in Tennessee, reduced the winning message of 1994 to its essence in a television ad when he endorsed "term limits for career politicians and the death penalty for career criminals."

Amplifying that GOP message was a grassroots conservative movement that rejuvenated itself in opposition to the Clinton Administration. While liberal constituencies and organizations managed only tepid efforts behind the Democrats, conservative organization such as televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Assn. and groups backing tax curbs and term limits all pulsed with energy.

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