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Can These 'Radical' Republicans Be Like Those Others?

NEWSPAPERS are now publishing scorecards (''Contract Watch'' in the Monitor) that summarize the progress through Congress of legislation implementing the Republicans' ''Contract With America.'' The scope and pace of legislative activity is extraordinary.

What are the historical parallels? The other periods when Congress enacted broad changes in a compact span of time, are clear: 1933 and 1965.

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The 1933 period came via a special session of Congress that responded to the Great Depression. In the famous ''Hundred Days'' from March 9 to June 15, the 73rd Congress enacted major banking legislation, farm subsidies, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a host of public works and relief programs.

In 1965, the national legislature passed a sweeping assortment of social legislation, including Medicare, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Neither of these cases, however, are truly comparable to the present. First, in both cases the country had unified, not divided government. The Democrats won huge majorities in the presidential and the congressional voting in the elections which preceded the 1933 and 1965 legislative surges.

The second dissimilarity is more important. President Roosevelt's first New Deal, and Johnson's Great Society, involved strong presidential leadership. Though the legislative results were unusually sweeping and their pace intense, both presidents were clearly ''running things,'' in a manner made familiar by a string of strong presidents -- from Washington and Jackson, to Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson.

The 1995 experience is entirely different. It isn't the president who's leading the way; it is a congressional majority of the opposite party. And these Republicans don't even enjoy large majorities in either the House or Senate.

I'm not sure that Speaker Newt Gingrich and his House colleagues want to be compared to Speaker Thad Stevens and his compatriots in 1865-68. The situations are completely different. The crisis of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction dwarfs any other period.

There's only one parallel for this burst of Congress-led policy change -- opposite the president's choice. That's the span between Lincoln's assassination and Grant's election in the 1860s. A ''radical'' Republican legislative majority took charge of post-Civil War Reconstruction policy and enacted it over the vehement opposition of President Andrew Johnson.

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But that's not the reason why many of today's ''radical'' House Republicans might look askance at efforts to compare them to the earlier Republican leaders. Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era have gotten a very bad press.

Stevens is a case in point. He is invariably described in terms of negative features that gave him the look of a ''medieval court jester.'' He dominated the House by ''bullying and ridiculing'' all challengers. He was angry and uncompromising, and so on.

There is not space here to attempt a real assessment of the political career of Thaddeus Stevens -- much less of the Radical Republicans of the Civil War. It is appropriate to note, though, that they, together with Lincoln until his assassination in April 1865, stood alone in American politics -- by offering a vision of a racially just society. They also recognized the enormity of the task remaining after slavery's abolition.

Much is made of the enmity the Radicals felt for Lincoln. Surely many of them badly misunderstood him. They failed to see that he was the greatest of American abolitionists. But this shortsightedness should not obscure the fact that after Lincoln's death the Radical Republicans were the only group that stood in the way of a policy of letting the North attend to its own pressing problems -- and leaving the newly freed African-American population to a white South that intended to return to the status quo as soon as possible.

Without a secure majority, the Radicals pushed through Congress the 14th and 15th Amendments, and saw them ratified. They enacted over Johnson's vetoes important -- if flawed -- civil rights legislation. A few of them, including Stevens, knew what would have to be done in areas such as education, before racial equality could be achieved.

Today's Republican ''radicals'' in the House face problems much less daunting than the problems of their counterparts of the 1860s. But they will do well to emulate their predecessors in courage and sustained commitment to a vision of a society sounder and more just than the one they found when they took up congressional leadership.

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