GOP hoping for anti-incumbent tide

William Schneider

September 28, 1990|By William Schneider

BOSTON — GEORGE BUSH has beaten Michael Dukakis for the second time. Only this time, he did it in Massachusetts, Dukakis' home state. Voters here, in a deep outpouring of anger against Dukakis and all his works, nominated two candidates for governor who had voted for Bush against Dukakis in 1988.

Dukakis also accomplished something almost impossible. He brought the Massachusetts Republican Party back to life. Now, it has a good chance of winning the governorship for the first time in 20 years. And maybe, with the help of a radical tax rollback initiative on the November ballot, it could win a good deal more than that.

The Democrats nominated John R. Silber, the outspoken and controversial president of Boston University. His biggest margin came from voters who said that 16 years of Democratic rule had been "a bad thing" for Massachusetts.

The voter rebellion here was not confined to the Democratic Party. Republicans also overthrew the front-runner in their gubernatorial primary, the staunchly conservative minority leader of the state House. Instead, they nominated William F. Weld, an independently wealthy and impeccably well-bred Yankee. Weld had a strong anti-corruption record as U.S. attorney. He drew headlines in 1988 when he resigned his position as assistant U.S. attorney general to protest Edwin Meese III's involvement in the Wedtech scandal.

In fact, the voter rebellion was not confined to Massachusetts. Oklahoma Republicans also nominated a crusading U.S. attorney with a strong anti-corruption record for governor. The Democrats rejected the gubernatorial bid of a House member and nominated a business executive who ran on an anti-government platform.

Oklahoma voters went even further, and the state became the first to impose a term limit on legislators. By 2-1, Oklahomans adopted a constitutional amendment limiting state lawmakers to 12 years in office. Similar measures are on the Nov. 6 ballot in California and Colorado.

This sort of anti-incumbent tide is exactly what Republicans have been praying for. Republicans have never gotten very far by running partisan campaigns in midterm years. What they have to do is run against the whole system -- Congress, the insiders, the Establishment, the status quo. Sure, some incumbents are Republicans, and they might get swept away by the tide of dissatisfaction. But Congress is controlled by Democrats, and most state governments are controlled by Democrats. It's a scorched-earth strategy. If you can't take over the institution, burn it down.

It's a feasible strategy for the GOP only in midterm years, when the Republicans don't have to defend an incumbent president. It's also a brilliant way to divert attention from the recession. When the economy is lousy, people are supposed to vote Democratic. The Republicans have a different answer: "Throw the bums out!"

What Massachusetts Republicans did was also brilliant. They turned themselves into a viable opposition party. They rejected a right-winger who could never have gotten elected and chose Weld, an outsider with a far more appealing ideological profile. Weld is strongly anti-tax and just as strongly pro-abortion rights.

Because of his liberal positions on social issues, some Republicans are saying Weld is not a real Republican. That doesn't seem to bother Bush, who will campaign for him. "The president is enough of a politician to know that this is the political opportunity of a lifetime," a White House aide said.

Massachusetts liberals are in anguish. They say Silber is not a real Democrat. Silber doesn't agree. He says, "I'm very easily defined as a traditional liberal Democrat."

What that means is that he is much more liberal on economic issues than on social issues. He calls for state-financed pre-school programs for all Massachusetts children. And he opposes the tax cut initiative on the November ballot.

Democrats used to win elections by nominating candidates like Silber, who were economically liberal and socially conservative. They got a solid working-class vote. Conversely, when Republicans were economically conservative and socially liberal, they usually lost. Too elitist.

But the country has changed since the New Deal. Most Americans now live in suburbs. The huge baby boom generation has come of age. And no candidate personifies the suburban yuppie more than Weld.

According to the Massachusetts exit polls, Weld is widely acceptable to those who supported the losing Republican and Democratic candidates. Silber is not. Two-thirds of those who voted against Silber in the primary said they would "definitely not" vote for him in November, no matter what.

Everyone expected a Reagan realignment in American politics. It never happened. Could there be a Bush realignment? Weld is the perfect test. First, he defeats the right wing of the Republican Party. Then, he defeats the Democrats on a wave of anti-tax, abortion-rights sentiment.

And the ultimate irony: It happens first in Dukakis' Massachusetts.

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