After Texas, Democrats can ignore Clinton's will ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The defeat of Sen. Bob Krueger in th special election in Texas had been in the cards all along. But the dimensions of that defeat -- more than 2-to-1 -- went far beyond the giddiest expectations of the giddiest of Republicans supporting Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Ordinarily, the size of someone's plurality doesn't mean much except to political junkies. In this case, the fact that Krueger came away with less than one-third of the vote is stunning enough to send a message President Clinton is not going to like.

And that message is that Democrats with relatively conservative constituencies have nothing to fear and perhaps much to gain from standing apart from their president. If it is a message widely accepted among Democrats in Congress, the president may face even more difficult problems with his economic package in the Senate and, assuming a bill passes there, in the final House vote.

Nor is there any compensating encouragement for more liberal Democrats. The turnout in the Texas election was down to fire-sale levels even among blacks in Houston and Mexican-American voters in South Texas -- low enough so that Gov. Ann Richards, who chose Krueger in the first place, could blame "apathy" among Democrats for the defeat.

That, of course, is exactly the point. What was clear is that the first Democratic president in 12 years has done nothing to energize his party or any element of it. This is a time when Democrats still should be celebrating their return to power and deciding how to make a reality of their agenda. On the contrary, it was strikingly obvious in Texas that Democrats in the nation's third most populous state are totally demoralized.

No one who followed the Texas campaign would blame Clinton alone for the loss of the seat held for so long by Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen. From the outset, Krueger seemed determined to prove once again that he is an absolutely stultifying campaigner -- this time helped along by a wretched campaign that seemed to leap from one misbegotten strategy to another almost every week.

But Krueger, as weak a candidate as he may have been, was further compromised by his inability to find a formula for explaining Clinton. The appointed Democrat voted against the president's budget as a way of expressing the opposition to higher energy taxes that is obligatory in the Oil Patch these days, but went wrong by voting for the stimulus-jobs bill. He first supported Clinton on gays in the military, then -- faced with a white-hot reaction from Texans -- said he would follow the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a classic straddle that satisfied no one.

Hutchison's dominant position was so obvious that even Ross Perot climbed on the bandwagon, delivering a de facto endorsement just 48 hours before the voting began.

But Hutchison turned a likely victory into a rout by hammering at the Clinton tax plan and the deficit reduction issue. In the final week, the Republican candidate began running both television and radio advertising using the "send a message" theme to exploit discontent in the Texas electorate obvious in polls that show 70 percent of the voters believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction."

There was, in short, a profit to be made by nationalizing the choice. That is a message not likely to be overlooked by edgy Democrats in Congress looking ahead to their own campaigns next year.

It is always a mistake to read too much into the results in any single election. There were many reasons to vote for Kay Hutchison or against Bob Krueger that had nothing to do with President Clinton. It is quite possible that the Republicans' heady boasts about sweeping the Texas governorship next year may look ludicrous a few months from now. If the economy rights itself over the next few months, Democrats may want to identify themselves with the leader who presided over that recovery.

But the size of the Republican margin in Texas is so impressive that it cannot be explained away by the most persuasive of spin doctors. The Democratic Party has elected its first president in -- 12 years and so far the new administration has been a political disaster.

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