WASHINGTON — Washington. SUETONIUS, with a journalist's eye for the telling detail, wrote that Julius Caesar, although stabbed 23 times, nevertheless arranged his toga nicely as he fell. Similarly, Republicans were decorous in defeat Tuesday night.
They insouciantly said that a loss of 27 House seats is average for a party holding the presidency during midterm elections, so a loss of at least nine or so seats 'tis a famous victory. But to understand how far the GOP has fallen, consider the historic low base from which it began this year.
Democrats already were at their highest level at midterm elections during a Republican presidency in this century (259 seats). So it was difficult for Democrats to gain ground, particularly because in 1988 only 21 House Republicans won with less than 55 percent.
On Tuesday, a bad situation for George Bush deteriorated. He was elected two years ago with his party controlling the lowest percentage of Congress of any first-term president in this century. In his victory, his party lost ground in governorships and House races and only broke even in Senate races. He is the first president in history to have won while his party was not gaining in any of those categories.
While Michael Dukakis was losing 40 states, his party was gaining two House seats. And now Democrats have been victorious in three consecutive House election cycles, the first such achievement since Democrats did it in 1954-56-58.
In 1992, the big three (California, Texas, Florida) will elect 105 members of Congress, almost one-quarter of the House. California will have the highest percentage of the House (12 percent) of any state since New York in the 1980s (13 percent). On Tuesday, two of the three -- Florida and Texas -- replaced Republican governors with Democrats who will supervise redistricting of just over half -- 53 -- of the 105 seats.
The eight largest states (California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) all elected governors, half of them (as this is written) Democrats. By 1992, these states will have redrawn the lines on 212 congressional districts. Democrats will oversee the drawing of 105 of them. Of the eight most rapidly growing states -- those gaining seats in 1992 (California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington) -- five or six will have Democratic governors during the 1991 redistricting.
Democrats are even better positioned to dominate redistricting than they were in 1981. So the ''struggle'' for control of the House in the 1990s appears over already. The year 2002 probably will be the 48th consecutive year of Democratic control of the House.
This political season was supposed to be convulsive. But by the end of the primary season, the score was 459-1 in favor of incumbents. Of 460 governors, senators and representatives seeking re-election, just one lost a primary -- and only after being convicted of a sex crime.
Four senators (a modern record) and 74 House members ran completely unopposed and about 300 additional House members were effectively unopposed (facing underfinanced opponents). So it was clear months ago that the congressional lagoon was not going to be roiled.
PTC In the last 10 elections (1970-1988), an average of five incumbent senators have lost. On Tuesday, only one did. And Democrats gained a Senate seat.
Regarding the Senate, Republicans are looking to 1992, when Democrats will be defending 20 seats, including eight that were won in 1986 by 52 percent of the vote or less. But for now, President Bush has a problem that was bad before Tuesday and now is worse.
In Mr. Bush's first two years, the Senate has been divided 55-45 and has been truculent. The Senate now will be divided 56-44 and facing a weakened Mr. Bush entering a presidential election season. One additional Democrat and increased partisanship will make Mr. Bush's life substantially more difficult.
Evidence of Republican decay is everywhere. In New York, the GOP gubernatorial candidate barely beat the Conservative Party candidate, receiving a derisory 22 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, the GOP gubernatorial candidate was buried by 36 points. In that swath of America from the Hudson to the Ohio border, the GOP did not even compete for executive power.
The Republican claim to be an irresistibly emerging majority was by Wednesday morning mere wreckage. Tuesday's results were not a referendum on President Bush, but they were to a significant extent a result of him.
The Republican Party's ideological profile has been blurred by Mr. Bush who, in his first month as president, said ''the people didn't send us here to bicker.'' The people express themselves through two parties because they have differences worth arguing about.
A party leader who disparages arguing as bickering, and who prefers mushy bipartisanship to healthy polarizing along fault lines of principles, disarms his party and pays a price. Tuesday's results are just the first installment.