WINGATE, N.C. This small town east of Charlotte is the home of Sen. Jesse Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and scourge of presidents. Last month, Helms burnished his reputation as "Senator No" by leading his fellow Republicans in rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, perhaps the greatest repudiation President Clinton has suffered to his leadership since his massive health care reform measure was shelved back in 1994.
Wingate is also home to Barbara Moser, a pleasant grandmother and accounting firm employee who was practically the first person I encountered when I began a weekend of voter interviewing in this area recently. What Mrs. Moser had to say constitutes a clear warning to the leaders of both parties in Washington as they reach the final stage of their endless struggle for control of the budget and the direction of national policy.
The message from the soft-voiced Mrs. Moser, who voted in 1996 for Clinton but had looked forward to supporting North Carolina's favorite daughter, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, for president next year, is one I heard from many other voters: Stop "fooling around" with partisan warfare and get serious.
Like most people, she thinks things are "going pretty well" in the country, but she quickly adds that her next-door neighbor "is having a rough time." A widow living on Social Security, the neighbor is struggling to afford her medicine, skimping on food to pay for it.
"If that drug bill passed," Mrs. Moser said, referring to legislation to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, "it would have helped her a lot. They said they didn't have time to consider it this year. Well, if they stopped fooling around, they would have had plenty of time."
What "fooling around"? she was asked. "Stop some of this stupid spending," she replied. "Put the money where it needs to be." And then, with rising indignation, she added: "$20 million to investigate the president! For what? Who cares who he slept with? All they do up there (in Washington) is run their mouths. All of them. I'm sick of them."
Much is made of the fact that Clinton is struggling to carve out some sort of legacy for himself as his time runs out. It is certainly the case that the inevitable enfeeblement of a second-term, lame-duck president has been made worse by the scandal his reckless adventure with Monica Lewinsky created. Clinton avoided being removed from office, but the tactics that thwarted the final stage of impeachment deepened the partisan divide in Washington and left his political credibility in tatters.
As Republican Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming told his colleagues the other day, "this is the most controversial session" in his decade of service on Capitol Hill, "the most uncooperative in ... coming to terms with the things we need to do."
The banking reform bill sent to the White House last week is one major piece of legislation that will become law this year. But the cupboard is almost bare of other significant domestic measures since the Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998. And, on the foreign policy and trade fronts, the administration has been in retreat. Whether it is paying the debt to the United Nations or getting "fast-track" trade negotiating powers given to every other recent president, Clinton has been repeatedly rebuffed.
Dismal as the picture is for him and the Democrats, the risk to congressional Republicans from the gridlock and partisanship in Washington is even greater. The test ban treaty vote may or may not become a big issue in itself. It came up rarely in my voter interviews. But it fits into a pattern of naysaying that Democrats can easily convert into an indictment of congressional Republicans as the roadblocks to progress and reform.
The Republican effort to impeach and remove Clinton failed because it lacked public support. Since then, congressional Republicans have stymied campaign finance laws (at a time when more and more people complain that elections are simply money games); they have dragged their feet on guaranteeing managed-care patients' protection; they have blocked gun safety measures; and they have rejected cigarette tax increases designed to reduce kids' smoking.
On some of these issues, they have valid arguments to make. But for an electorate which gives cursory attention to the details of the Washington debate, the overall impression is profoundly negative. It does not help that the personalities who have been out front for congressional Republicans -- be it Helms or Sen. Trent Lott or House Whip Tom DeLay -- can be caustic in their comments.
The GOP badly needs to show some accomplishments in the second session of this Congress. Clinton has his legacy to worry about -- but it's the Republicans who face an election next year.
-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.