Wandering In The Wilderness, The Gop Looks To Dole

Bob Dole is sounding a bit confused these days. At a Nov. 10 press conference, the Senate Minority Leader said: "57% did not vote for Clinton.... He has no mandate." A few minutes later, the Kansas Republican declared: "Our purpose is not to obstruct. Our purpose is to be constructive where we can, thoughtful in every case, and helpful from time to time."

Truth is, Capitol Hill Republicans don't know what to do about the challenge created by the Democratic sweep. Does the GOP respond to public demands to end gridlock by cooperating with the Clinton Administration? Or do Republicans revert to form and wage war against Democrats?

It's not a happy choice, but the GOP can't be choosy. The White House is gone. Senate Republicans are down to 41 votes, just above the minimum needed to sustain a filibuster. And a golden opportunity to gain seats in the House fell short. "You will see lots of shouting, just like you did when the GOP was heavily outvoted in the '60s," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman. "But the Republicans can't prevail. There are too few of them."

Worse, the GOP is deeply divided. House Republicans, shoved around by the Democrats and ignored by the White House for a decade, are split by a feud that's ready to explode. On one side is the conciliatory House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois. On the other, the House pit bull, Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Both men are likely to keep their jobs when the GOP caucus convenes in December. But the venom will come out in a fight for the No.3 job. Conservative Representative Richard Armey of Texas will try to unseat moderate Jerry Lewis of California as chairman of the House Republican Conference.

While House Republicans sharpen their knives, Dole has moved into the vacuum as the party's spokesman. For four years, Dole was a loyal lieutenant to a President who beat him in a bitter fight for the 1988 Republican nomination. Suddenly, Dole seems reborn. Says one former Dole campaign official: "I can't tell you how happy he is to finally get George Bush out of his life."

And Dole, a wily partisan, may be the GOP's best hope for finding a way out of the post-election wilderness. For now, the best course may be to avoid commitments. "Republicans will adopt a wait-and-see approach in the early days of the Administration," predicts Thomas C. Griscom Jr., a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.). "You want to get a sense of whether Clinton's own party will support the President before you join in."

MORE POWER. Early on, the GOP will try to drive wedges between the new President and his erstwhile Democratic allies on the Hill. Dole has already challenged Clinton to push for a line-item veto. Clinton (and most Republicans) support the concept; Democratic congressional leaders oppose it. If Clinton pushes the idea and it passes, Dole could isolate the liberals and forge a bipartisan centrist majority that would give Republicans power well beyond their paltry numbers. If the Democratic leadership beats the proposal, the GOP can just watch Hill Democrats fight with the White House.

Democrats hope that Dole will be as cooperative as another Senate Minority Leader, Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), who helped his friend Lyndon Johnson pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But Dole remains a very formidable adversary. Says Republican consultant Lisette McSoud: "Bill Clinton should not underestimate how important a person he is. Clinton has to work with Dole if he hopes to succeed. Dole doesn't have to work with Clinton."

Richard S. Dunham in Washington Edited by Stephen H. Wildstrom

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