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Small-mindedness continues to prevail in Republican ranks

Democrats were heart-scalded by President Clinton's 180-turn on a balanced budget, especially because the person pushing him to the decision is someone they don't know.

It is one thing to have a major call go against you, quite another to be out of the loop and clueless about Dick Morris, the Republican pollster-consultant who supposedly persuaded the president that it was time to join the Republicans in cutting Medicare. Only a few former clients know this Merlin whom Clinton summons at crunch time.

According to David Maraniss' invaluable biography of the early Clinton years, First in His Class, Clinton met Morris almost 20 years ago, when he was attorney general of Arkansas and eyeing higher office. Morris came back when Clinton was going down in his first bid for re-election as governor in 1980 and during the '82 comeback. His appearance at the White House, while the president was trying to decide whether to go on heckling the Republicans or to jump in with his own solution, ruffled many staff feathers and caused explosions on the floor of the House.

One Democratic consultant described the Rasputin as "a former Democrat who went from George McGovern to Ed King." (King was the Archie Bunker-type who defeated Mike Dukakis for governor of Massachusetts in 1978.) Morris also has worked for Republicans Paula Hawkins in Florida, William Weld of Massachusetts, Dan Coats of Indiana, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Jesse Helms, and Democrat Howard Metzenbaum, former senator from Ohio, who doesn't remember him at all.

Critics call Morris "politically androgynous," but one prominent and satisfied client, Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, says he a man of many ideas who helped him get elected to the Senate in 1988. His quality, to Lott, is that he understands Democrats.

"I think Republicans who use only Republican advisers are doomed to difficulty," says Lott. "Democrats and Republicans think differently, like men and women _ they think with different sides of the brain."

Lott thinks, understandably, that Clinton made the right decision. "We were killing him; he had a severe case of irrelevancy. You just can't stand outside and throw rocks, the way he was doing. We were like that for 40 years, telling people what a bad job the Democrats were doing."

Republicans speculate that Morris saw Clinton as not the vetoing type. He's a conciliator who hates final and arbitrary measures like that. What he has done is to signal that he's ready to make a deal.

Asked if Republicans feel they have a mole in the White House in the person of Morris, Lott chuckles and says, "I just put it this way: There will be cases where we could work together for the good of the country."

By letting the Republicans know that there is room for agreement, Clinton has furthered the idea that was born in Claremont, N.H.: that the country is hungry for politesse and fair play. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was drubbed by the right wing for obsequiousness to the president, but everyone else, it is said, loved it.

You would never know it from what happened on the Senate floor last week on the nomination of Henry W. Foster Jr., a decent and honorable man who was treated like a dog by the Republicans. For pettiness, spitefulness and sheer meanness, it had few parallels.

Foster, a Nashville ob-gyn doctor who had delivered 10,000 babies, was denied a floor vote, for the simple reason that Republican leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole felt an overwhelming need to prove that he is as mean as his rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

The president said, after the first vote on cloture was taken and failed, that the whole thing was about a woman's right to choose. Foster, during his long career, had performed some 29 abortions, a figure arrived at after some initial White House fumbling. But it was really about Bob Dole's ability to prevail over Phil Gramm. Dole will get the credit _ if there is any _ for killing the Foster nomination.

The first cloture roll call, with the names of such kinder, gentler Republicans as Mark Hatfield and John Warner, told the story. It was a test of loyalty to Dole. There were reasons to vote against Foster. But this was not an honorable execution. This was a shot from a poisoned arrow. He was found not worthy to have his name come before the Senate. That's fair?

Foster won a host of admirers with his warm and humble presentation of himself in open hearings. During the shameful votes, he sat in a room off the Senate floor, cheerful as ever. He would have made a fine surgeon general. Instead, he became, as Democratic leader Tom Daschle said, "a victim of the first Republican primary."

So much for civility. Meanness still sells in Republican politics.

Universal Press Syndicate