- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

George Nethercutt is the poster boy of the fragile Republican majority in the House of Representatives. He's what the Great Revolution of '94 was all about and what that revolution has dwindled away to in the double aughts.

Mr. Nethercutt was the giant killer of Spokane, the man who bounced Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker of the House, out of office with the cry that the speaker was out of tune, out of touch and out of gas.

Elect him instead, Mr. Nethercutt said, and he would serve three terms and return to Spokane. Term limits, he said without equivocation, was the only way to return the House to the people.

Well, that was then, and this is now. The giant killer with the big noise has shrunk to an anxious incumbent on whom the frightened and frail Republican majority is counting for mere survival. Mr. Nethercutt has served his three terms and, just like Tom Foley before him, he's terrified of having to go home and get a job. He never bothered to encourage a successor.

Naturally, he doesn't put it quite that way. Selfless pols never do. He's running for a fourth term not because he wants to or because there's anything in it for him, but because it's "best for the district."

"It would be easiest to say the heck with it and not run," he says. "But I feel an obligation to finish some of the things I've started. The farm bill and sanctions relief." (Not to mention the struggle for National Clean-up, Paint-up, Fix-up Week, Ingrown Toenail Awareness Month, and maybe a Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.)

Mr. Nethercutt is one of three members who ran in '94 on his sacred word that he would get out and go home after three terms and who now dismisses all that as a joke on whoever was dumb enough to believe him. The other two are Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, a Democrat, and Scott McInnis of Colorado, a Republican.

"Of the three who broke their promises, George Nethercutt is the one who far and away made the pledge a central issue in his campaign," says a spokesman for U.S. Term Limits, which campaigned for the three in '94, but which now, sticking to principle, opposes all three.

U.S. Term Limits is making Mr. Nethercutt a particular target. The organization brought to life Garry Trudeau's cartoon figure, "Weasel King," which is based on Mr. Nethercutt and his broken promise. Weasel King has been following him around his district in costume, applying the needle successfully enough that the Nethercutt staff tries to slip their candidate in and out of Spokane at odd times unknown to Weasel King.

Further rising to take the bait, Mr. Nethercutt is making himself the issue in his campaign with radio commercials accusing U.S. Term Limits of "lying" and "distorting" his record. He has even described Paul Jacob, president of U.S. Term Limits, as "a convicted felon who served a long prison sentence." Mr. Jacob, who says he does not believe in forced military service, served 5 and 1/2 months months, not years in prison in 1980 after refusing to register for a nonexistent draft.

Mr. Nethercutt may continue to get the last laugh. His consultants are confident that his constituents have short attention spans and may not be conscious enough to remember what happened way back in a previous century. "I think term limits as an issue has receded in voters' minds," says Brett Bader, a Republican political consultant. "It's still a concept they tend to support, but it's no longer something folks feel must be accomplished this year."

Mr. Nethercutt is a perfect emblem of the Republican campaign for the House. The Republicans took the House in '94 by drawing a vivid line between themselves and the Democrats, promising that things would be different if the Republicans controlled the House. The voters, no doubt in a different mood than they're in this year, responded with a mandate of fire and thunder. The Groggy Old Party spent the mandate in six months and the fire and thunder have become a tiny bubble and an occasional squeak.

The party elders have learned the Democratic game well. They celebrated their victory on the China trade vote as if it were something to be proud of, rather than onerous duty done, and Dennis Hastert and his bag men didn't bother to hide their anticipation of the tsunami of corporate campaign contributions they now expect as their due. This, as it turns out, was what the revolution of '94 was about.

Blinded by the glitter of the coin, for the moment they could put aside the prospect of losing the House. But not for long. Vote Republican, we're not as bad as you think may be a slogan to comfort the rich and toothless, but it's not a battle cry to make the troops run for the ramparts of September and the trenches of October.

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