WASHINGTON. — Washington -- You don't have to have done time in uniform to recognize the bugle call that sounded from coast to coast on Tuesday. It was Reveille.
Wake up, it told politicians. The natives are restless. Fall out with weapons and field transport packs, ready to march. But which way?
Unlike the pre-dawn orders of a platoon sergeant, this week's returns point in all directions. There were contradictions from state to state, region to region. The only clear message was to the in-crowd: Shape up or ship out.
In the most closely watched balloting, a sitting senator in Pennsylvania and a whole congressional delegation in Washington state were endorsed after earlier concerns that incumbents everywhere were in trouble. Despite those results, that remains precisely the message from both states. Incumbents are indeed in trouble, from precinct to White House, and it will be fun watching how career officeholders in the year ahead pretend they're rank amateurs who never held office at all.
In Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford had been in the Senate six months after being appointed to serve out the term of the late John Heinz. But he succeeded in running as the outsider against former governor and U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh. Mr. Thornburgh was easy to cast as an insider because he has been one so long -- and because he nonchalantly thought that qualified him to walk off with the Senate seat, he lost.
In Washington, the ballot initiative to limit terms for elected officials would have given the entire state congressional delegation its walking papers. Speaker Tom Foley, the country's senior elected Democrat, would have been chief among them. He went home, threw himself against the seemingly unstoppable term-limit idea, and stopped it.
But it was such a close shave that it could have been a clip from ''The Perils of Pauline.'' Despite the speaker's effort, the well-financed initiative got 46 percent of the vote. Any incumbent listening closely should have heard what Washington state was saying.
President Bush, about the time exit polls started showing what would happen in Pennsylvania, announced he was scrubbing his NTC planned Far East trip. If he had waited a few hours, the connection between Pennsylvania and the cancellation would have been too obvious. True to form, Mr. Bush found something in the results elsewhere to make him feel better. Republicans surged in the New Jersey and Virginia legislative and the Mississippi gubernatorial elections. The bulletin from New Jersey was against taxes and from Mississippi it was against welfare.
The Mississippi GOP candidate's anti-welfare campaign was an
easy-to-decipher racial code, which surely cheered Republican ex-Klansman David Duke, who is using the same technique in his gubernatorial race in next-door Louisiana. It must have further confused Mr. Bush -- after finally coming out against Mr. Duke and agreeing to sign a civil-rights measure very much like what he had labeled a ''quota bill,'' Mississippi reminded him that racial politics still works in the Deep South.
But that was a sub-theme in the Tuesday results. The president and his advisers will seem much more confused as they try to cater to the major message of anger and frustration at the in-crowd.
Ronald Reagan got away with running against entrenched politicians even after he had served two terms as governor and four years as president. That was because the world still thought of him as an actor, and he never pretended to be expert at anything but making speeches.
President Bush, however, ran as the resume candidate. His career in Washington now covers a quarter-century. Since 1966, he has been congressman, U.N. ambassador, Republican national chairman, envoy to China, CIA director, vice president and president. His vice president, Dan Quayle, has never held a serious job outside politics. He came to Congress two years out of law school and his been here ever since, 15 years and counting.
Both support term-limit legislation.
It may not be honest for professional politicians to feign outrage at other professional politicians for staying around too long, for those who fly around on Air Force 1 and 2 to rail at others who live high on the taxpayers. But that doesn't make it impossible. Only the other day, the president lambasted Congress for exempting itself from the civil-rights bill, when his White House was just as exempt.
That's politics -- and that's what people are mad about.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.