A thoroughly nonpartisan warning

November 16, 1990|By William Schneider

The 1990 ELECTIONS were a warning. The "ins" are in trouble. That could be a problem for George Bush. As president, he is the nation's ultimate "in."

Republicans, of course, don't see things that way. They think they got through the elections relatively unscathed. After all, if you look at the results in partisan terms, they were a wash. The Democrats ended up gaining only one Senate seat and nine seats (out of 435) in the House. When all the shouting was over, neither party came out ahead in the elections for governor. No big deal.

Except that you shouldn't look at the 1990 elections in partisan terms. The message from the voters this year was thoroughly nonpartisan: You're all a bunch of goof-ups, and we're getting sick and tired of it. You stand warned.

At least members of Congress were lucky. They got by with a warning. Only one senator and 15 House members were defeated on Tuesday. But those who were re-elected won with sharply diminished majorities.

Governors weren't so lucky. They got it in the neck. A fourth of the governors running for re-election this year were defeated. In 14 of the 36 states with elections for governor, the party in power was thrown out. As it happens, the Democrats were ousted in seven states and the Republicans lost the other seven. So in partisan terms, it was a draw. But that doesn't mean nothing happened.

Governors seemed to pay the price for a bad economy. In states that threw the governing party out of office, an average of two-thirds of voters interviewed as they left the polls said their state's economy was in bad shape.

Why did voters take it out on governors and let members of Congress get off with a warning? Apparently, because they believe that governors run things and that all legislators do is make speeches and vote.

This is bad news for Bush for two reasons. More than three-fourths of the voters across the country said the national economy was in bad shape. And Bush is not the nation's legislator. He is the nation's governor.

There was a big market for outsiders in this year's election. Independents were elected governor in Alaska and Connecticut. A Socialist got elected to Congress from Vermont. The loony left elected a new senator from Minnesota. The loony right re-elected Jesse A. Helms in North Carolina. Connecticut voters sent a staunchly conservative black Republican to the House. Insiders such as House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., saw their victory margins drastically shaved.

Three governors who pledged not to raise taxes and then broke that pledge were defeated on Nov. 6. Voters all over the country rejected measures that would have raised taxes, increased spending or added to bond indebtedness.

Voters sent a clear message on taxes: No. Bush got the message. He said he had "serious regrets" about "being forced" to abandon his no-new-taxes-pledge, and he promised not to do it again: "You know, sometimes you run into some realities, "but I'm girding up my loins to go into battle to beat back the tax attempts that I think are coming."

Bush better gird up real good, because if his popularity continues to decline, he could face a tax revolt within his own party. House Republicans have already defied him on the budget. Conservatives may decide to challenge him in the 1992 Republican primaries. They can't deny him renomination. They just want to carry a message to the convention that the party must reaffirm its anti-tax position.

If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights, Bush is also likely to face a challenge from Republican moderates in 1992. They also can't deny Bush renomination and only want to carry a message to the convention that the party must change its stand on abortion rights.

One thing we know in politics is that an incumbent who faces a serious challenge for renomination is in trouble. Gerald R. Ford had that problem in 1976. Jimmy Carter had that problem in 1980. Bush doesn't need that problem in 1992.

The president has to decide which way he wants the GOP to go. Two kinds of Republicans did well in the elections. Conservatives such as Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Gov. Guy Hunt of Alabama, Sen. Strom Thurmond and Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina and Senator Helms of North Carolina were re-elected. Conservative Republicans also won Senate seats in Colorado, Idaho and New Hampshire. They are the meaner, tougher Republicans.

But a whole new class of moderate Republicans was elected to governorships this year: Arne Carlson in Minnesota, Jim Edgar in Illinois, William Weld in Massachusetts and Pete Wilson in California. All are pragmatic and for abortion rights. They are the kinder, gentler wing of the party.

Which side is Bush on? When he campaigns, he tries to be meaner, tougher. When he governs, he tries to be kinder, gentler. This balancing act cannot continue. To paraphrase an old Yiddish saying, Bush's behind is not so big that he can sit on both sides of the fence at once.

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