The news stories during the time between the announcement of the pork-laden final-installment $520 billion federal appropriations agreement (of a total of $1.7 trillion in federal spending this year) and its final passage were full of lamentations and rhetorical hair-tearing from back-bench Republicans and admonitions from their leaders to shut up and take their medicine. How had a president on the verge of impeachment managed to outsmart the Republican majority in Congress yet again and force it to accept a budget Mr. Clinton could rightfully proclaim as a personal triumph, full of pet programs the Republicans had resisted all year. Is he some kind of alchemist?

Washington Post columnist David Broder offered a technical explanation from a Beltway veteran. When final budget decisions are delayed past the Oct. 1 beginning of the new fiscal year, a president naturally has more leverage than a Congress whose majority is small and divided. With his bully pulpit and single voice (not to mention the cooperation of most of the media, an advantage Mr. Broder failed to note) the president would be able to blame the GOP if the government were shut down, so the congressional leadership blinked first.

The reason that happens year after year, Mr. Broder explains, is that the leadership is so weak that it is not able to control those pesky conservatives, who keep adding controversial conservative hobby-horse provisions the president is sure to veto to appropriations bills early in the process. So the appropriations bills keep getting delayed until the time the president has maximum leverage, at which point Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich cave — probably more than they have to, but by that point the defeat is inevitable and the details are just details.

That’s reasonably plausible from a conventional-wisdom perspective. But while Mr. Broder is correct to note the weakness of the congressional Republican leadership, he seriously understates the extent of the weakness and misunderstands the character of the weakness.

The real weakness of the GOP leadership was apparent much earlier in the session in a series of decisions not to try to do much in the way of promoting policy changes. Instead of confronting the president with bold initiatives like a significant tax cut (instead of the puny $80-billion-over-five years proposal they failed to get anyway) the congressional GOP would do little or nothing. It would count on the fact that the party out of the White House traditionally gets a big jump in congressional numbers in the sixth year of a two-term president’s reign, try not to alienate anyone, count on Ken Starr’s inquiry to energize the conservative base and promise to do more next session when it had a bigger majority.

Unfortunately, in the process the GOP failed to give anyone a reason to vote for Republicans over Democrats besides the fact that they were not defending a leader so disgusting as Mr. Clinton. GOP leaders were even ready to accept and crow over the tobacco extortion “settlement” until, no thanks to them, public sentiment shifted and the huge tax increase became unpopular. So if Republicans end up increasing their numbers by only a few, as seems quite possible (although underlying factors may yet give them a substantial pick-up) it will look like a defeat and Republicans will have primarily the congressional leadership to blame.

How might things have been different? The Republicans could have stayed above the scandal fray, immunizing themselves from charges about a partisan inquiry by concentrating on policy and highlighting the policy differences between themselves and Mr. Clinton. They could have picked two or three major policy areas — a tax cut at least as large as the surplus; the abolition of the Commerce Department; a freeze on federal spending; a regulatory oversight commission; a series of hearings into Mr. Clinton’s irresponsible and reckless use of American troops overseas to divert attention from his troubles at home; expansion of Medical Savings Accounts so they would be available to the entire population; a cut-off of funds to all international agencies, not just the IMF; hearings on federal law-enforcement abuses and the disastrous growth in federal agents; contempt-of-Congress resolutions for implementing the disastrous Kyoto treaty when the Senate hadn’t ratified it and wouldn’t, or perhaps a vote to refuse the Kyoto treaty — the list could be extended. After picking the two or three from the large available list that resonated best with the people, they could have passed them early, let Mr. Clinton veto them early, and had a clear platform on which their candidates could have run in November.

Instead they dithered until Mr. Clinton had the advantage. And when he had an advantage they not only gave him more than they had to, they all groveled in the pork-barrel trough shamelessly at the end, slipping in special-interest appropriations for their districts or their favored constituencies and screwing the taxpayers as eagerly as any Democrat. They counted on the scandals to carry them instead of policy, and they may get caught in a scandal backlash.

Voters have no real reason to vote for Republicans over Democrats, then, but what realistic options do they have? Electing a few Libertarians or giving some Libertarian (or Reform or Taxpayer or even Green) candidates totals like 20 or 30 percent might send a message of disgust with the two major parties. But the minor parties don’t have the money or the savvy to capitalize on their opportunity.

As a result of congressional Republican timidity, an election that could have been a referendum on impeachment is likely to be inconclusive, leaving Mr. Clinton to serve out his full term and an increasing number of Americans disgusted with both parties. Not exactly an inspiring service to the country at a time when some semblance of vision was needed.

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