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Democrats Find New Villain For ‘96 Election When Is Big Government Not So Bad? When It Takes On Big Business

Suddenly it’s not big government in the political cross-fire. It’s big business.

After 16 months in which the Washington debate has revolved around Republican efforts to retrench the size and reach of the federal government, Democrats are moving with increasing boldness to reassert a role for government in both shaping and policing the private marketplace.

For several weeks, the administration and congressional Democrats have kept Republicans off-balance with demands that government raise the minimum wage. Last week alone, President Clinton took steps intended to raise beef prices, lower gasoline prices and begin an investigation of the major oil companies - who are finding themselves lashed daily by Democrats in language not heard since the late 1970s.

Republicans have responded to these thrusts by pointing the finger of blame at government, and calling for tax cuts to ease the sting of rising oil prices and boost workers’ take-home pay.

These contrasting arguments - and parallel conflicts on other unresolved issues like product liability and regulatory reform - offer clues to a fundamental political question looming over the 1996 race: Is antipathy toward government as powerful a force now as it was in the 1994 election that swept the GOP to control of Congress? Or is antigovernment populism being eclipsed to some extent by other concerns - including a reassertion of traditional populist worries about the power and priorities of business?

“What you have right now is a battle for the heart and soul of the working class of America,” says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “The Democrats are retreating back to their old populist anti-corporate rhetoric, and the Republicans are very solid in their anti-Washington approach.”

For most of Clinton’s presidency, anti-government populism has been a powerful force. Hostility toward new government initiatives proved an insuperable barrier to Clinton’s health care plan, and a gale in the sails of the GOP during the 1994 congressional election. But congressional Republicans were unable to translate that general sentiment into support for their specific proposals to cut spending, taxes and regulation.

Now, even some Republicans worry that other concerns could be overshadowing the public antipathy toward Washington on which the party has constructed its agenda.

“The political marketplace is working,” said one GOP consultant, suggesting that Sen. Bob Dole’s sharp slide in recent polls reflects the diminished power of the staunch anti-government appeal at the core of his message.

“Dole started the month 12 points down to Clinton; now they are 20 points down. That would suggest that trying to reframe the election around 1994 doesn’t work. The world has moved on.”

Almost all Democrats acknowledge that public skepticism about government remains pervasive. “The antipathy toward government really has not changed dramatically,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

What has changed, Mellman adds, is that suspicions about business are re-emerging after being suppressed during the height of the anti-Washington fervor that marked Clinton’s first two years. “People are increasingly of the belief … that corporations are less loyal to their workers, to their communities and even to their country,” he says.

Anti-business attitudes - inflamed by Patrick J. Buchanan during his bid for the GOP presidential nomination - appear to be increasing the willingness of politicians to propose government actions to set limits on business.

Some of these proposals are bipartisan: The Senate unanimously passed the recent Kennedy-Kassebaum health care bill establishing a series of new rules for health insurance companies.

But the mass of Republicans are still much more likely than Democrats to attribute social and economic problems to overreaching government, not malfunctioning markets.

Both the minimum wage and gasoline price debates underscore the parties’ contrasting strategies.

On the minimum wage, Democrats essentially argue that government must intervene to help workers who are not receiving a fair wage from their employers. Most Republicans denounce a minimum wage increase as a form of government regulation that would ultimately cost jobs. Instead, House Republican leaders have proposed to bolster workers with tax cuts - particularly a $500 per child family tax credit.

The same basic division separates the parties in the debate over oil prices. Dole says the recent run-up in gasoline prices demonstrates the need to repeal the 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax that Congress approved in 1993 as part of Clinton’s original deficit-reduction plan.

Many Republicans see the gas-tax argument as a way to open a larger debate over taxes that could revive the party’s recently sagging fortunes. “What I would like to see happen is … to have us broaden it to the whole 1993 tax increase, which is an enormous liability for the president,” said one GOP senator.

Clinton has been much more cautious than congressional Democrats in his rhetoric about the oil industry. That reflects a broader difference in outlook: Chastened by his repudiation in the 1994 election, Clinton still appears much more hesitant than many congressional Democrats about leading the government into new missions.

For instance, while House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich have been calling for new tax incentives to shape corporate behavior, Clinton has kept his distance from the idea. And even as Clinton moved last week to sell government oil and to accelerate government purchases of beef, he reaffirmed his call for a seven-year balanced budget that would mandate massive reductions in domestic spending programs.

Indeed, even amid this measured upsurge in enthusiasm for government activism, no Democrats are talking seriously about proposing major new government programs; selling a small, virtually symbolic amount of oil and buying beef are still extremely modest uses of government compared to the cascade of new programs, from national service to national health insurance, that poured out of the White House during Clinton’s first two years in office.

“Even in this anti-regulatory period there is a willingness to turn to government as a policeman,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “But this should not be mistaken for a pro-government or pro-social spending sentiment.”

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