WASHINGTON — Welcomed by raucous chants of "six more years," President Clinton told a gathering of national Democrats on Saturday that he would work with Republicans where possible but draw a line against GOP efforts to overturn the signature achievements of his first two years.
"I challenge the leaders of the other party: Stop the politics of demonization and division, and let's think about exercising joint responsibility," Clinton said at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee.
But while offering the potential of compromise on welfare reform, immigration and other issues, Clinton declared that he would fight any Republican efforts to repeal the Family and Medical Leave Act, the national service program, expanded immunization for poor children, the Brady law requiring background checks for handgun purchases and especially the ban on assault weapons included in the new anti-crime law. "We must not go back," Clinton said firmly, to his loudest applause of the afternoon.
Clinton's speech capped a two-day DNC meeting marked by a surprising absence of recriminations for November's electoral debacle--and an abundance of sharply edged attacks on the new GOP majority in Congress.
"Remember what Mark Twain said: The reports of our demise are premature," Clinton declared, paraphrasing the American humorist.
Indeed, the meeting underscored the intensity of the partisan emotions let loose by the electoral earthquake that delivered the Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Throughout Saturday's session, Democrats drew repeated standing ovations with jabs at House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who seemed as much a presence at the Democratic meeting as at the parallel Republican political gathering across town.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, whose appointment as DNC general chairman was approved at the meeting, lampooned Gingrich for his blistering speech Friday before the Republican National Committee. While defending himself against critics of his deal to write two books for a company owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Gingrich had attacked his Democratic critics and the news media and made a pointed reference to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's profits from cattle futures trading in the 1970s.
Referring to Gingrich's promise to put the elements of the House Republican "contract with America" up for a vote within 100 days, Dodd said: "If Newt doesn't cool down, I'm not sure he's going to be around in 100 days."
Also speaking at the DNC meeting, Hillary Clinton fired back at Gingrich with a reference to his calls to end federal funding for public television. "I don't really care what the Speaker says about me. But I do have this to say: I wish he would leave Big Bird alone."
Even the President picked up the theme, at one point declaring amazement that Republicans posit "a world in which Big Bird is an elitist and right-wing media magnates are populists."
For the most part, though, Clinton avoided attacks on the GOP and appeared to be tuning up for his State of the Union Address on Tuesday. He tried to thread a line between the Republican attacks on government and the public perception that Democrats remain wed to big-government solutions.
"I do not believe there is a program for every problem," Clinton said. "But I do not believe government is inherently bad."
Between the exuberant attacks on Republicans, the Democrats heard a bracing assessment of their electoral condition from outgoing party Chairman David Wilhelm. While urging Democrats to take the offensive against the GOP, Wilhelm said the party must acknowledge that its failure to unify around Clinton's agenda during the past two years contributed to the GOP landslide.
With speculation about primary challenges to Clinton swirling through the party, Wilhelm predicted that a nomination battle would condemn Democrats "to defeat in a general election."
And he warned that Democrats faced electoral disaster if they could not improve their standing with Americans of strong religious conviction: "Somehow we lost the flag in the 1980s. Let's not lose the Bible in the 1990s."