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Return To Gridlock City Or Maybe, Just Maybe...


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RETURN TO GRIDLOCK CITY-OR MAYBE, JUST MAYBE...

A philosophical inquiry: Why haven't deprived sports fans griped more about the demise of the hockey season? Answer: Given the untamed spectacle of the midterm elections, who needs hockey?

Campaign '94 was the Stanley Cup playoffs of political mayhem. Republicans charged that Democrats coddled criminals, undermined families, and had a "secret plan" to gut Social Security. Democrats accused Republicans of racism, a return to trickle-down economics, and--you guessed it--of readying a secret plan that would gut Social

Security.

When the whistle sounded on the election brawl, casualties were everywhere. Perhaps the biggest was the nation's two-party system. Assuming Democrats and Republicans spend the next two years banging heads, little of substance will get done. A brief quiz on whom this benefits most: Republican National Committee Chairman Haley R. Barbour, Democratic Party Senior Adviser Tony Coelho--or a certain pint-sized populist residing in Dallas.

THIRD FORCE. Hardliners such as Texas Senator Phil Gramm reckon voters will be thrilled if they tie Washington in knots. "I only plan to compromise with President Clinton when he's moving in the right direction," Gramm says. Swell. Meantime, Clinton's political advisers are itching to recast him as a Trumanesque figure who blasts the "know-nothing 104th" Congress--a combative stance that would doom any chance of compromise.

The prime beneficiary of a return to gridlock would be the "third force" protest movement that spawned the likes of Ross Perot--and could yet spark an independent Presidential bid by ex-General Colin L. Powell or someone else riding in on a white tank. "Clinton took advantage of this huge disgust with government in '92, now Republicans are benefiting from it," notes Presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss. "It could come back to haunt everyone in '96." A few Republicans seem to sense this. "We've got a two-year shot at restoring faith in our party," says GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz. "If we fail, we'll see another Perot figure rising."

Perot, typically, has turned cute about his intentions. He initially urged supporters to give the Republicans a chance to rein in government. Then, he ignored the preference of the Texas chapter of his United We Stand organization to endorse Democratic Governor Ann Richards for reelection. Now, Perot says his movement will know "in 100 days" if the Republicans are serious about ushering in change. If that doesn't happen, he may form a new political party.

That could wipe the grin off of GOP chief Barbour's face. Since two-thirds of the 19 million people who voted for Perot in '92 are nominal Republicans, the GOP would be the big loser from another Perot lunge for the Presidency.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans don't have to slit their wrists--or turn off voters with mudslinging campaigns that drive millions more toward the ranks of the unaligned. Let's just imagine that Frank Capra has returned from Tinsel Heaven to shoot a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Washington pols all suddenly start listening to the people again. A chastened President and his GOP foes could easily sit down and agree on a bipartisan agenda.

The elements: A new deficit assault that focuses on the real problem (middle-class entitlements) rather than a fake problem (funding for the Rural Electrification Administration); trade expansion; welfare reform that provides work incentives but doesn't throw unemployed mothers onto park benches; and a health plan built upon on the modest insurance reforms that Senate Republicans advocated a few years back.

To discourage further massive spending on negative ads, Clinton and the GOP could agree on limited campaign-finance reform that reduces special-interest money. They also could agree to curb congressional perks and adopt stricter lobbying rules. Finally, the parties could sponsor a series of national town meetings to give tuned-out voters a chance to sound off on the issues that concern them most--issues, to the surprise of President Clinton, that may have nothing to do with such arcana as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The stuff of fantasy, of course. And yet. And yet....Lee Walczak and Susan B. Garland


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