WASHINGTON -- Post-convention fear and loathing that grips Republican strategists has little to do with either the current Democratic bounce in the polls or Al Gore's reputed prowess as a debater against George W. Bush. It is the coming endgame in the congressional session, where Bill Clinton has repeatedly taken the measure of the Republican leadership.
The worst-case scenario dreaded by Republicans is a replay of the 1995 governmental closing that inflicted permanent wounds on the GOP. The federal government could be shut down by Oct. 1, two days before the first scheduled presidential debate. Gore would then pounce on Bush as complicit with Republican intransigence that led to this perceived catastrophe.
Republican congressional leaders are determined to avert such a course of events. "We are not going to shut down the government," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the party's leading legislative tactician, told me.
But how? Can continuing resolutions to keep the government open at present spending levels suffice? Should the Republicans give President Clinton everything he wants? Even if that is enough to satisfy Clinton, will it undermine base support for the Bush ticket? Should Bush himself do anything? Playing the budget endgame is truly risky business.
Democratic threats abound. At the Los Angeles convention, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt warned that a budget impasse might continue right into the election, making for a nightmare Republican campaign. On the Monday after the convention adjourned, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta wrote a remarkably audacious letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. It might well have been delivered as one of the speeches in Los Angeles, reiterating partisan demands without offering any avenues for compromise. For years, the president's lack of interest in negotiating has frustrated and paralyzed Republicans, and Podesta's letter follows his chief's pattern.
Consequently, Republican support builds for another surrender to Clinton's demands, to give Clinton the $630 billion in spending he wants for fiscal year 2001 -- $30 billion more than was set by the Republican budget resolution passed by Congress. Rep. Tom Davis, the House Republican campaign chairman, is pressing to wrap up the congressional session by giving in to the president without prolonged negotiations.
Sufficient money certainly is there. The latest unpublished Senate Budget Committee figures show an upwardly revised on-budget (non-Social Security) surplus for 2001 of $117.9 billion -- enough to take care of everybody's desires: all Republican tax cuts, a new Medicare lockbox, a prescription drug program, additional debt reduction, Clinton's spending wishes, and still have money left over.
But House Majority Leader Dick Armey and DeLay worry about the Republican voting base being turned off by a capitulation. They want to avoid a repetition of 1998, when the congressional surrender was followed by GOP setbacks in the mid-term elections.
The more serious problem for the Republicans is that merely matching Clinton's spending numbers will not be enough. The president will surely demand more -- indeed, the entire Gore legislative agenda. Thus, failure to enact a prescription drug plan that won't begin until 2002 would become the reason for closing the government in 2000. The intractability of Podesta's letter tends to confirm Republican suspicions that Clinton is not interested in appropriations or legislation, but in a train wreck.
That raises the prospect for Vice President Gore turning to Gov. Bush in their first debate, while the government is shut down or bitter negotiations are still in progress, and asking him: "Why don't you pick up the phone and call Trent Lott and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and tell them to break the deadlock?"
Bush has campaigned as a non-Washington Republican, unconnected with Lott, Armey and DeLay (none of whom had speaking roles at the Philadelphia convention). He surely does not want to take responsibility for any train wreck on Capitol Hill.
The great difference between now and five years ago, however, is that in 1995, the only big public megaphone was Bill Clinton's. Now, the Republicans have one in Austin. Republicans in Congress do not expect the governor to attempt a premature presidency, making a foolish effort to micromanage complicated legislation from 1,300 miles away. But he has to respond to the trap being laid by the president.