With a Continental Shrug, 'Yesterday's Gone' and a Torch Is Passed Might as Well Try Something Else

GEORGE F. WILL

November 05, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- A dozen Novembers ago, at the dawn of a conservative presidential era, Walter Mondale, in his graceful concession speech as vice president, spoke of the majesty of the people wielding ''their staggering power.'' Only four times in American history has one party held the presidency for more than 12 consecutive years (the Republicans have not since 1896-1912) and this year the people's power ended a 12-year reign. But the people's decision was a kind of continent-wide shrug: Might as well try someone else.

Sixty-two percent of those who voted, voted against the incumbent president. But 57 percent voted against the next president. Ross Perot's dalliance interruptus with the electorate produced a plurality president. No novelty, that.

From 1824 (the first election in which most electoral votes were determined by popular voting rather than voting in state legislatures) through 1992 there have been 43 elections. In 15 the winner received less than a majority of popular votes. Only four times has the winner received less than 44 percent, but two strong presidents, Lincoln and Wilson, received 39.8 and 41.8 respectively. Those two and Richard Nixon (who won a first term with just 43.4 percent) won re-election.

In their most recent four victories prior to Tuesday, Republican presidential candidates won a stunning average of 91 percent of the electoral votes -- better than the 88.3 percent that FDR won in four victories. On Tuesday President Bush won just 31 percent.

But Republican strength was already ebbing four years ago, when Mr. Bush did worse among Democrats than any Republican had done since 1952. Michael Dukakis, although now derided, did unite his party, winning back a majority of ''Reagan Democrats'' (who were just 7 percent of the electorate). Mr. Bush was the first Republican to win a first term while his party was losing strength in both the House and Senate.

This year he became, in part, a belated casualty of his greatest success, the Gulf War. His postwar popularity convinced him he could coast to re-election, relying on his nimbus rather than an agenda. Mr. Bush's campaign confirmed historian Robert Conquest's droll law: The behavior of an organization often can be predicted by assuming it to be controlled by a cabal of its enemies. Mr. Bush's campaign -- constant improvisation revealing consistent insincerity -- was condign punishment of the Republican Party for making him its leader.

Democrats are government enthusiasts: They are unsure what justice is, but are sure that only government can deliver it. Their activism is both a cause and consequence of ''interest-group liberalism'' -- belief in brokering maximum satisfactions for the maximum number of factions.

Republicans, being less comfortable brokering interests, require a higher quotient of appealing ideas, both to motivate themselves and attract supporters. Hence the party should not have put itself in the hands of a person so unlike the ''conviction politician'' who preceded him in the presidency.

President Bush lacked authority, a derivative of convictions connected to passions. The epitaph of his presidency could be Kingsley Amis' poem ''The Masters'':

That horse whose rider fears to jump will fall,

Riflemen miss if orders sound unsure;

They only are secure who seem secure;

Who lose their voice, lose all.

As usual, and contrary to naive expectations, incumbents were not an endangered species on Tuesday. Only three incumbent senators lost and 93 percent of House incumbents won. Those numbers explain this one: In all of the 14 states where the political class could not prevent the people from voting on term limits for U.S. senators and representatives, the people imposed limits to enhance political competition. As a step toward radical reform of Washington's political culture, this is potentially more important than the presidential result.

The unsentimental cashiering of the incumbent president expressed the electorate's exhilarating sense that some chafing restraints having been shed -- a cheerful belief that risks can be taken. Today the nation is more physically secure from foreign attack than at any time in its 216 years. Domestically, it is a nation with problems -- but it is a temperate, prosperous, successful nation with problems. The importance of this election, historically, is that it was the least important election since the 1920s.

The electorate seems to have cast a cold eye on government and politicians and decided that it and they have only limited purchase on only some problems.

Hence the sense of a nation serious but unenthralled. Hence at the end of the campaign, the continental shrug: Might as well try someone else.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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