WASHINGTON - Picking over the bones of Tuesday's midterm elections, for all the talk of negative tactics and throw-the-bums-out, candidates and voters alike hewed to a relatively responsible and moderate course. Republicans and Democrats who discussed real issues in a competent fashion were able - with one glaring exception - to over-come smear tactics and appeals to base instincts, and the voters largely sidestepped them.
That exception, clearly, was the re-election of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina, wherein thinly veiled racial appeals did in his black Democratic challenger, Harvey Gantt.
But in the gubernatorial elections, the new faces who took away seats from the opposition party were men and women who bested their foes on substantive issues dealing with such matters as the state of the economy, taxes and competence to lead. Even in the mud-slinging spectacle in Texas, it appeared to be Republican Clayton Williams' own excesses and demonstration of incompetence in the public arena that won for Democrat Ann Richards.
The ideological coloration of Republican and Democratic winners in states that switched party control was notably middle-road - Republicans Arne Carlson in Minnesota, Richard Snelling in Vermont, John Engler in Michigan, William Weld in Massachusetts and George Voinovich in Ohio; Democrats Lawton Chiles in Florida, Bruce Sundlun in Rhode Island, Bruce King in New Mexico and Ben Nelson in Nebraska.
As a result, largely banished from the campaign rhetoric was the supply-side economic nonsense from Republican candidates that fueled debate in the Reagan years. And winning Democrats, while picking up the tax-fairness issue fumbled to them by President Bush in his mishandling of the deficit-reduction fiasco, also steered a generally moderate course. Many combined a pro-choice position on abortion with support for the death penalty in an effective effort to keep liberal credentials while showing a toughness on the Democrats' past vulnerability, how they deal with crime.
All this, for all the emphasis on how negative our politics has become, may augur a move toward more positive, responsible and middle-road politicking looking toward the 1992 presidential race. For one thing, as President Bush sees the election of fellow Republicans eschewing what he so accurately labeled "voodoo economics" but then embraced, he may be persuaded to return to the moderate brand of Republicanism he practiced before being seduced by Reagan.
It will not be easy for him to do so, especially with the Newt Gingrichs of the world still baying at the supply-side moon and snapping at his heels. Gingrich's own very close call Tuesday might be expected to cool off the GOP's pit bull, but don't bet on it. Still, with some more reasonable voices now added to the Republican chorus, Bush could if he would temper his rhetoric and get on with responsible governing.
As for the Democrats, their capture of the governorships in Texas and Florida give them hope of better times in the South for their next presidential candidate, along with a new sense of unity coming out of the deficit-reduction exercise. Running against a Republican president who balked at higher taxes on millionaires and dropped 20 percent in the polls suddenly seems a more attractive prospect.
Now that the midterm elections are over, Democratic 1992 hopefuls busy with their own re-election campaigns may begin to step forward. Govs. Mario Cuomo and Bill Clinton and Sens. Sam Nunn, Joe Biden, Jay Rockefeller and Al Gore all won handily. But Sen. Bill Bradley narrowly survived an ambush in New Jersey, apparently in the backwash of voter ire against Democratic Gov. Jim Florio's sharp tax increases. His prospects inevitably are dimmed
Bradley pledged during his campaign to serve out another six years in the Senate if re-elected. He is not the sort to treat such a pledge cavalierly, and it would not be surprising if he stuck to it.
As for Bush, life is not likely to get easier for him. In addition to facing a Congress with more Democrats in it, he must cope with all those House Republicans still chafing at his flip-flop on taxes and newly doubtful about his leadership skills. Whether any Democratic presidential aspirant has a realistic shot at the White House two years hence may largely depend on how George Bush meets this political challenge.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.