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The Right's New Attack Dog: Wimpy Bark, No Bite


Washington Outlook

THE RIGHT'S NEW ATTACK DOG: WIMPY BARK, NO BITE

When a prominent quartet of exiled conservatives created a high-powered think tank on Jan. 12, former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp vowed that Empower America, as it was called, would become nothing less than a "shadow government." But four months later, the organization, beset by bureaucratic inertia, clashing egos, and a lack of consensus on alternatives to Clintonomics, has yet to cast any shadow at all.

Set up with $3.7 million in seed money from investment banker Theodore J. Forstmann Jr. and a few other well-heeled backers, Empower America showcases some of the GOP's sharpest tongues and minds: Kemp's partners are Bush drug czar William J. Bennett, ex-Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, and former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.

But instead of launching broadsides against President Clinton and generating alternatives to his policies, Empower America's big guns have been strangely ineffectual. The group issued a little-noted report of Clinton's first 100 days that accused him of straying from his centrist campaign vows. And Bennett has used Empower America to publicize his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, a statistical portrait of America's moral decline under Big Government. Notably missing: Kemp's impassioned attacks against Clinton tax hikes. "It's been a big windup, but we're still waiting for them to throw some pitches," grouses one GOP strategist.

DIFFERENT MAPS. Empower America was created to chart a new direction for the GOP. The aim: to avoid George Bush's discredited laissez-faire policies and the polarizing agenda of the religious right while promoting government incentives for entrepreneurship and individual freedom.

But the organization's leaders have different road maps. Kemp champions supply-side economics, Bennett social issues. Kirkpatrick expounds on the New World Order, and Weber tries to keep the peace. That has led to arguments, which Kemp dismisses as family squabbles. "I can't imagine any organization with any chutzpah that doesn't have a debate over what you should be doing," he says. But the tension has led to predictions that the group will break up, as Kemp and Bennett--both potential Presidential aspirants--go their own way.

Empower America also was supposed to create a grass-roots lobbying network for "progressive conservatives." It hired ex-Ross Perot aide Orson Swindle to organize the drive. But he operates out of his Honolulu home, and thus far, there's little evidence of a grass-roots surge. Weber says Empower America will hold its first regional conference in Milwaukee in June. He claims it has 150,000 supporters. But an insider says only 9,000 cared enough to give money.

BIG STAFF. While GOP grousing grows louder, life goes on comfortably inside Empower America's headquarters. It has a staff of 26, and payroll takes up 40% of its budget. Bennett and Weber make $150,000. Kirkpatrick and Kemp don't draw pay because they have other income. Kemp spends much of his time on the lecture circuit, where he earns up to $35,000 a pop.

Kemp and Bennett hope Empower America can do for them what the Democratic Leadership Council did for Clinton. That group, which Clinton once chaired, was formed after the Democrats' 1984 rout to steer the party toward more popular policies. Unlike Empower America, it began with only $300,000 and four staffers.

Kemp & Co. dismiss the slow start. But "if we're performing at this level a year from now," confides Weber, "I'll be disappointed." More to the point, if Empower America keeps performing like this, it might not be around a year from now.EDITED BY STAN CROCK Owen Ullmann


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