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CAN GOP LEADERS SOLVE PROBLEMS BEFORE BUSINESS-AS-USUAL HITS?

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IN JANUARY, Congress dropped an elephant. "Operation Dumbo Drop" came to life, the film in which a lumbering beast is shoved out of a cargo plane and careens toward land. Will its chute open in time?

All year we've watched the GOP soaring through the clouds, floating on its "Contract with America" like a leaf in the breeze. Parts of the narrow Republican agenda have been realized, but tougher issues like campaign reform, overhauling the welfare and health-care systems, term limits and balancing the budget are pulling it downward.As the Earth rushes closer, can congressional leaders solve these weighty problems before Washington lands on its business-as-usual status - that most feared of phrases every freshman ran against and every incumbent decried?

Most of the declared candidates for the Republican presidential nomination showed up for Ross Perot's party in Dallas last weekend. But reports from "preparing our country for the 21st century" didn't burn up the front pages.

I have a theory about Perot. For all his insistence that his conference was intended to educate the public and address the nation's problems, his real goal was to put on a puppet show that revealed the nation's lack of statesmanship.

"We've got bright people. They've got good plans," he said. He lined up the bright people, praised them, then drew back the curtain to show that none of the emperors was wearing clothes. It must have been his own private joke.

Pat Buchanan promised that he would wantonly bash illegal immigrants trying to crash America's borders. Pete Wilson bragged that he has.

Phil Gramm dangled hopes of a $3,900 bonus for the average American in the year 2001, if he's elected.

And Bob Dole fawned over members of United We Stand, extolling them for being flies in the ointment. "The world needs more flies," he said.

Were we supposed to be impressed with these people? Were we supposed to believe this is the best we can do heading toward the next century? Or was it a ploy to make yes-no-don't-know candidate Perot look palatable by comparison?

Though in power for eight months, the elephant party hasn't changed America for the better. Its members haven't initiated an alternative to the welfare program they condemn as the root of all evil, haven't balanced the budget they say is eating into our children's future.

For all the post-campaign arrogance, Congress today is going down in history as the most mean-spirited, most partisan in recent history. That spirit has convinced New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley to leave the Capitol Hill playground.

The 1996 campaign is looming, and in politics you're only as good as your last election. That falling pachyderm is picking up speed. If the GOP doesn't pull its rip cord soon, it's going to make one big, nasty kersplat.