WHAT'S GOING to kill us isn't high Democratic turnout, it's low Republican turnout," Craig Shirley, a Republican political consultant, told the Washington Post in a late-October interview.
Shirley is half right. What's going to kill the Republicans this year is both high Democratic turnout and low Republican turnout. The key factor in this year's elections, as in all elections, is motivation to vote. This year, the Democrats have it. They feel angry and threatened. The Republicans don't. They have no message, and they have no leadership.
Election results depend on two things: who votes, and whom they vote for. Who votes -- the differential turnout between Democrats and Republicans -- is usually more important.
Look at the 1974 landslide, when the Democrats picked up 48 House seats. From 1972, a presidential election year, to 1974, the nationwide Democratic vote for House candidates dropped by almost seven million. But the GOP lost almost 12 million votes. What gave the Democrats a landslide was the disproportionate Republican abstention rate. Faced with Watergate, President Ford's pardon of Richard M. Nixon and a deteriorating economy, millions of Republicans stayed home.
Take the 1980 Republican landslide. From 1976-80 -- both presidential years -- the Democrats lost 2.5 million House votes. The Republicans gained more than six million. This time, it was the Democrats' turn to stay home and the Republicans' turn to vote in record numbers. Result: 34 new Republican House seats.
In 1982, the advantage shifted back to the Democrats. From 1980-82, the Democrats lost 3.6 million House votes. But the Republicans, facing the worst recession since the 1930s, dropped 9.6 million. Democrats won 26 new House seats.
The Republican problem this year was aptly summarized by Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who in an Oct. 15 memo advised House GOP candidates, "Do not hesitate to oppose either the president or proposals being advanced in Congress."
The party took his advice. House Republicans voted, 126-47, against the final budget compromise passed on Oct. 28. Senate Republicans also opposed the measure, 25-19.
What about the tax increases? That part of the budget deal President Bush blamed on the Democrats: "They're talking about FTC taxing the working men and women of this country." Then why did he sign the bill? Because, Bush said, "strong medicine" was needed to offset the "uncontrolled spending binge" of the Democratic Congress. The message is, the Democrats spend too much, and so the president had no choice but to make the voters pay for it.
A Republican strategist summarized the administration's fantastic strategy for the New York Times: "They're going to sign off on the budget deal, then try to pin it on the Democrats, say George Bush didn't do it and expect the voters to believe this whole budget was an immaculate conception."
"My fear is that our voters are going to show their disgust by not voting," the director of the Republican Governors Association said. Democrats are likely to show their disgust in just the opposite way. Virtually all Americans will face higher taxes, either through income tax rate hikes, an increase in the gasoline tax, new Medicare taxes or higher excise taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and airfares. True, the rich will see their taxes go up the most. But they are the least likely to complain. The complaints will come from the middle-income voters who wonder exactly what they are paying for.
And from the elderly, who face rising Medicare premiums. According to the polls, that's the constituency where Bush has lost the most support over the past month. The elderly in this country are famous for one thing: They know their interests. And they vote.
So do blacks, which is why Bush's veto of the civil rights bill could get his party into even more trouble. The White House portrayed the veto as standing firm on an issue of principle -- namely, opposition to quotas -- to offset Bush's decision to compromise on the budget. But the principle was never communicated very clearly, except to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who came to Washington and announced, "It looks like the president and the Congress are getting my message."
Bush seemed to be defending business interests while the Democrats claimed the moral high ground. Bush became the third president ever to veto a civil rights bill; the others were Andrew Johnson and Ronald Reagan. The fact that the Senate came within one vote of overriding Bush's veto, with 11 Republicans voting to override, only made the president look weaker.
But won't the Democrats lose white votes because of the civil rights bill? Probably not, for three reasons. One is that the bill's provisions were highly technical, of interest mainly to lawyers, business groups -- and blacks. Second, the law did not go into effect. And third, the Democratic Party's support for civil rights is well known.
What is new is the perception that Bush, for all his rhetoric about a "kinder, gentler" America, may be no different from Reagan on civil rights. Blacks turned out in unexpectedly large numbers in the 1982 midterm because they felt threatened by Reaganism and the recession. If black voters turn out this year the way they did in 1982, they could make a big difference in critical Senate and governor's races such as those in North Carolina, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. All they needed was a reason to vote, and the Bush administration has supplied it.