The President’s threat to veto the $16 billion in current-year spending cuts -- if it isn’t massaged to his liking -- is clearly a high-risk political decision that invites gridlock for the remainder of the 104th Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is screaming bloody murder, denouncing the President for not playing fair. Instead of warning of a veto while the House-Senate conference was putting the rescission bill together, the White House lulled the conference into thinking the President would accept it. Mr. Clinton and his re-election team obviously want a bill he can veto, not one he can sign. In his syndicated column today, Robert Novak makes clear that the veto has much more to do with politics than policy, that “the Clinton re-election campaign is underway.” In the same way, it is clear the re-election team did not want a trade agreement with Japan. They want a conflict, to show the American people they are willing to be tough with Japan, and the only price that will have to be paid is by rich Americans who buy luxury automobiles.
Should you and I be disappointed in our President for playing politics instead of serving the nation’s interests? Alas, he could care less what we rich, white, male Republicans think. On the track he had been on, Bill Clinton knew he would wind up sheepishly being led to a slaughter in 1996. The orbit of the ‘96 elections has now taken over in our nation’s capital, which means those who have been bred in the bone to be political cannot help themselves. They are going to do whatever they think must be done to retain power or achieve power they do not have, if they can get away with it. If you think the Republicans are more upright and statesmanlike in such matters, you are only kidding yourself. The President can get away with vetoing the rescission bill by insisting it hurts the poor and helps the rich because the argument seems credible. This is because the Republican Party in control of Congress has created an environment of revolution that puts budget balancing and trade balancing -- the traditional objectives of its Hoover wing -- above economic growth.
Speaker Gingrich, who appeared on Evans&Novak this weekend, is clearly in an advanced stage of Hooverism. There is no longer any pretense that his objectives are those of Jack Kemp and the supply-side Reaganauts. King CaNewt wants to roll back the tide of red ink with angry rhetoric. The fury and venom that poured out of him against the President over the veto threat is clear evidence that Clinton has defeated him in this political round. The President’s poll ratings continue to climb and Newt’s continue their decline. When this was pointed out by Novak, Newt promised that his President and ours will be unpopular in three or four months. This is no way to convey a spirit of bipartisanship, but rather signals that Newt is resigning himself to trench warfare. He, too, is in the 1996 orbit, talking himself into a lather that some people believe might become his presidential candidacy. He is already broadly signaling a willingness to be drafted, but we can probably forget about that. As cold reality sets in, Newt is bound to calculate that he would risk his entire career on one role of the dice. He would have to vacate the Speaker’s chair to have any chance of putting together the required organization and bankroll. He would probably never get it back, which is what some of his best friends are telling him.
If I were Speaker Gingrich, I would issue a Shermanesque statement about 1996, one that would then permit me to assert leadership over the leaderless GOP. As long as he is flirting with the nomination, the nation cannot take seriously anything he says about his legislative agenda. Inasmuch as we cannot take seriously anything Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole says about anything -- as he is driven purely by the politics of ‘96 -- by default there is no meaningful Republican leadership in this Congress. When the President bashes the Japanese, Senator Dole bashes the Japanese and so does Speaker Gingrich. They all know they shouldn’t be doing this, but at the end of the day they tell themselves it has to be done with a larger good in mind. Should Henry Foster be confirmed as Surgeon General? Well, yes, in an ideal world they could vote for the fellow, but because so many people think he is what he isn’t, it would send the wrong message if he were confirmed.
What we have is a triumph of illusion over reality, which is what one expects in the terminal stages of a Political Establishment run by pollsters. Indeed, Newt’s Contract with America was written by pollsters and focus groups. Republicans know a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution in reality is a disgraceful idea, but it would send the right signal, they say. The only element of the Contract that would bring genuine relief to the nation is the promised indexing and reduction of the capital gains tax. Remember, in 1989, a capgains cut passed the House only to be killed in the Senate, when Senate Minority Leader Dole decided to give up without a fight. A cut/indexation has been included in the House budget resolution and will now come to a Senate vote on Wednesday. A long list of Republican Senators has informed Dole they cannot vote for it, on the grounds that while it may be the right thing to do, it sends the wrong signal. The political grapevine suggests that Dole may have invited his friends to sign the letter informing him they could not support him, to preserve the illusion that he tried to get it done, but was overwhelmed by those concerned with other illusions.
Democratic leaders, of course, routinely engage in the same kind of sophistry. Liberal senators know the spotted owl is not endangered. The environmentalists made a mistake in overlooking several thousand who are hooting away in Northern California. It would send the wrong message, they say, to admit error and permit logging to resume in those areas of Oregon and Washington where they are supposedly endangered. Liberal journalists will acknowledge that Larry Potts should not have been elevated to the No. 2 spot at the FBI after presiding over the carnage at Waco and Ruby Ridge. But now that it has been done, says Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, he has to keep his job, or it will send the wrong signal.
If Gingrich ends speculation about ‘96 and devotes himself to the relentless pursuit of bipartisan government -- even if it means Clinton does not become unpopular -- he can force Clinton to become bipartisan. The President, who is playing illusion for all its worth, would not be able to win that game if Gingrich remains willing to engage in good faith efforts at two-party rule. As long as he is thinking about the White House and more fame and more fortune instead of legislation, he will produce only gridlock.