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Republicans need leader who’ll put forth new agenda

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It is A measure of how desperate the British Conservative Party is that its leader, William Hague, visited the United States recently hoping to pick up some "winning ideas" from the Republican Party.

The Grand Old Party, which has majority control of Congress, may be in better shape than the Tories, but that's not saying much.Even before the Clinton impeachment disaster, the Republicans were running low on ideas, fighting among themselves and sinking in the polls. About the only thing that united them was their ill-fated effort to bring down Bill Clinton's presidency. Last November's election was a downer for Republicans, who barely held on to their House majority. The Democratic gains led to the ouster of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the Republican in line to succeed him, Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana, soon became a casualty of his party's war on adultery during the Clinton impeachment battle.

President Clinton, meanwhile, has not only beaten the impeachment rap but has stolen or neutralized most of the Republicans' best issues. The Republicans have fallen back to their golden oldie, tax cuts. This is the issue Republicans are counting on to unite their party and bring home the Reagan Democrats, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Congressional Republicans are divided on their leadership's proposal for a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut, and there are signs that the voters are less interested in a tax cut than in shoring up Social Security and Medicare or paying down the national debt, as the president is proposing.

Everything is relative, of course, and maybe Hague thinks the Republicans are doing a dandy job. His first stop was in Washington, where he met with Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and other GOP heavies. From there, Hague flew to Texas to better understand Gov. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." Before heading home to London, Hague was to touch down in New York to chat with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who could be facing Hillary Clinton in next year's U.S. Senate race.

The one group Hague did not call on was the GOP's religious conservatives. That's too bad. An encounter with Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer would have helped him understand why the Republicans are in trouble. But who knows? Religious conservatives might have declined to see him. After all, the Tories stand for some things that are anathema to American conservatives -- a government-run health care system and abortion rights, for example. Even worse, they are notorious for their sex scandals.

Hague may not go home with many "winning ideas," but he will find plenty of empathy here. The Republican Party hasn't been the same since Ronald Reagan left the White House. The same can be said of British Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher moved out of No. 10 Downing.

Clinton's "New Democrats" showed Tony Blair's "New Labor" the way to win elections, and both have left the conservative opposition crying, "Thief!"

Just as Republicans accuse Clinton of stealing their issues, British Conservatives complain that Blair has trespassed on their political turf. "These people (New Labor) are claiming our ground," Hague told The Washington Post recently. "They're using our language. They've learned the trick of sounding conservative, but they don't govern conservatively. They talk about tax cuts, but they've raised a lot of taxes in a clever, stealthy, backhanded way."

I can just hear Lott telling Hague: "You think Tony Blair is shameless, you should meet this guy Bill Clinton. You name it -- crime, welfare reform, military spending -- and this guy has cleaned our plow. We're down to tax cuts, and he's even winning that debate by telling people the Republicans would rather give tax breaks to the rich than save Social Security and Medicare. This guy knows no shame -- none. He lies to everybody, including a grand jury, about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and what happens? His approval ratings go through the roof and the rocks and mountains come down on the Republicans for trying to hold him accountable. I just don't get it."

Republicans really don't get it. They still don't understand why most Americans opposed their effort to remove Clinton from office. In fact, while party moderates and congressional leaders want to close the book on impeachment and change the subject, some Republican hard-liners refuse to let go. They keep telling themselves that they were ahead of the people on impeachment and that in time most Americans will come around to seeing things their way.

If the Republican Party is to recover its strength and broaden its appeal, it will have to turn to a leader outside Washington and put forward a new agenda. Just as Tony Blair borrowed a few pages from Clinton's campaign manual, Hague should get better acquainted with George W. Bush. Next time, he should skip Washington and fly straight to Austin.

Scripps Howard News Service