THANKS TO President Bush's goal-line stand against taxing millionaires, the Democrats go into Tuesday's mid-term election in better shape than anyone dreamed. Instead of losing two or three Senate seats, as seemed inevitable last summer, they are almost sure to break even and may even gain one or two.
In the House, they should increase their lopsided majority by five to 10. They have 50-50 shots at governorships in the mega-redistricting states of California, Texas and Florida, plus surprisingly strong challenges in Ohio and Illinois.
Local personalities and issues dominate most of these races, but Bush's stubborn battle for cap-gains and upper-income tax breaks reminded voters there is a generic difference between the parties when it comes to nurturing the rich. It helped, too, that Democratic leaders rediscovered their roots at the 11th hour and fought to shift a bit of the tax burden onto people making more than $100,000.
Bush has had a remarkable run with messages from both sides of his mouth (Willie Horton vs. kinder-gentler, environment and education vs. no new taxes, "I've had it with Saddam Hussein" vs. "going all-out . . . to avoid hostilities.")
Even so, his election-eve pitch that Republicans who voted against his budget ought to be elected because Democrats had made him include taxes in his noble rescue of a deficit-imperiled economy was a touch hard to follow. If the deal was evil, why was he angry at Ed Rollins for suggesting GOP candidates oppose it? If it was virtuous, why try to decapitate Democrats who passed it for him over the dead bodies of the candidates he now favors?
Al From, who staffs the Democratic Leadership Council, thinks his conservative-leaning group helped make Democratic candidates more acceptable by steering the party away from special-interest liberalism. He cites, among others, Dianne Feinstein in California, Lawton Chiles in Florida, Neil Hartzinger in Illinois, Harry Lonsdale in Oregon.
In the face of the sudden squall, Republicans scurried in all directions -- from a contrite Gov. Bob Martinez in Florida to a motor-mouthed Clayton Williams in Texas. They agreed on almost nothing except opposition to Bush's budget.
Sen. Jesse Helms won the sleaze derby. He panicked when polls showed him trailing his black opponent, Harvey Gantt, in North Carolina. The result: a racist attack reminiscent of Georgia's Eugene Talmadge half a century ago.
There's a lot of anger and disgust at the system these days, some of it unjustified. As Congresses go, the 101st wasn't that bad. Passing even a patchwork deficit reduction that raised taxes and cut services on election eve was gutsy by today's standards. Enacting workable clean air and child-care bills was something no recent Congress had been able to pull off. Campaign finance reform was the only conspicuous failure.
In the odd way that politics plays out, the resentment isn't targeted at incumbents across the board, however. Republicans seem to monopolize the cross-hairs. That's a healthy omen for Democrats in 1992, but they're sure to find a new way to blow it.