Print Pundits Ponder Political Performance p. 16

By: Tony Case Journalists comment on Republican-controlled Congress
and offer predictions about the 1996 presidential race sp.

THREE PROMINENT PUNDITS of print journalism met at the 92nd annual convention of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association in Colorado Springs to ponder the performance of the Republican-controlled Congress and to offer predictions about the 1996 presidential race.
Associated Press columnist and vice president Walter R. Mears, in a good-natured skewering of both political parties, reflected the electorate's chronic dissatisfaction with Washington and those running it.
Mears, during a panel discussion titled "Politics As (Un)usual," noted that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republican legislators vowed to reinvent government in a hurry once they took charge. But, although the House did approve most of the GOP's much-touted Contract With America in only 100 days, proposals contained in the ambitious pact aren't any closer to being law.
Mears, recalling Gingrich's stated desire to get things done on Capitol Hill in an "adult, mature manner," said he suspected "most voters thought they were electing grown-ups in the first place."
And Gingrich, during a stop on his recent book tour, told reporters that talking was more tiring than he'd imagined. Quipped the AP executive: "He ought to try listening to himself sometime."
Putting his aim on the Democrats, Mears pointed out the hypocrisy in President Clinton's appeal to Republicans to keep politics out of welfare reform. This is the same politician, the newsman reminded the publishers, who repeatedly called for an end to "welfare as we know it" throughout his 1992 campaign.
"He dropped the issue when he took office ? to his own sorrow, I think," Mears said.
Susan Page, the Newsday senior White House correspondent and chief national political reporter who just moved over to USA Today, described the Republican takeover of Congress as having a "transforming effect" on the White House.
Democrats originally viewed the sweep as a "real kick in the stomach," she said, remembering Clinton's "dazed look" in the days following the November election. But the depression subsided as the president and his camp became convinced the other side's victory spelled good news for a Clinton reelection bid.
Clinton revamped his political team, dumping most of those who helped him get elected; disassociated himself with the Democratic leadership in Congress; and shifted to the right on such key political issues as school prayer and capital punishment, reported Page. Meanwhile, the president distinguished himself from the dominant party on what the journalist called "the three e's": the elderly, education and the environment.
Clinton likely will run his campaign next year on the central premise he's keeping an eye on the eager-to-shake-things-up Republicans, Page maintained.
"Now," she said, "we seem to be watching a campaign that says divided government is a great idea: Keep the Republicans in control of Congress, which is likely to happen, and I will help them institute the changes you want ? but I'll keep them from going too far. Basically he's going to run on: Elect me, and I'll be Newt Gingrich's babysitter."
It wasn't Republican-Democratic fisticuffs that had Baltimore Sun and Tribune Media Services columnist Jules Witcover piqued at the SNPA convention, but the "Powellmania" sweeping the country.
Gen. Colin Powell's remarkable popularity ? his My American Journey is the fastest-selling title in publisher Random House's history, a televised talk with Barbara Walters got top ratings, lines at his book signings are said to be as long as a mile ? is a true phenomenon at a time when the public's disdain for politicians is palpable, Witcover observed.
Quite simply, the citizenry likes Powell, the columnist said, just as it "liked Ike" Eisenhower, another military hero who captured the land's highest office largely thanks to his favorable public image.
But, of course, it remains to be seen what effect Powell's newly aired political views might have on a quest for the GOP nomination. Witcover pointed out Powell has emerged as a "Rockefeller Republican," espousing a left-leaning stance on such hot-button issues as abortion, affirmative action and gun control. The general's positions, as Witcover noted, "are not in the mainstream of the Republican Party."
It's not a given that Powell's magnetism will enable him to steal the nomination from front-runner Sen. Robert Dole, the columnist says. Aside from the fact that Dole leads in the polls, the senator has the added advantage of belonging to a party that, historically, is loyal to its leaders.
"If you look back and see who's been nominated by the Republican Party since Nixon in 1968," said Witcover, "the nomination has always gone to somebody who's paid his dues."
But Page hasn't seen any evidence that Powell is eager to get into the mudslinging that goes along with presidential campaigning. She suggested Secretary of State might be a more sensible ambition, noting Powell would be well suited for this role in either a Republican or Democratic administration.
"I think Colin Powell would like to be crowned president," Page said, "but I'm not at all sure he wants to run for president."
?(Walter Mears) [Photo]
?(Jules Witcover) [Photo]


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