Unhappy voters choose radical change

November 09, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Whatever the final count of Republican gains in Senate and House seats, the voters have dealt a stinging rebuff to President Clinton and the Democratic Party in the 1994 midterm elections.

Although some of the contests were decided on the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, there was clearly an element of referendum in the breadth and depth of Republican gains in both congressional and gubernatorial elections. The voters were saying that they are dissatisfied with a political establishment they perceive as too liberal and too distant, and that they want radical change overnight.

The result will be a series of new problems confronting Mr. Clinton both as president and as candidate for re-election two years from now.

The most obvious, of course, is that he will now have to spend the next two years dealing with a Congress markedly more conservative than he has confronted in his first two years -- and, more to the point, a Congress that has just been given an overwhelming endorsement of its conservatism.

The president must adjust to this reality, moreover, at a time when every action he takes will be viewed through the prism of presidential politics. Much as they may deny it, the politicians in both parties believe the 1996 campaign begins today.

Mr. Clinton can expect not just the predictable hostility of the Republicans to many of his ideas but problems with a significant number of Democratic survivors who either stood apart from him during the campaign or will do so now that they have read the returns. Politics is an eminently practical business, but it is also one in which atmospherics play an important role. And the word now will be that Bill Clinton is damaged goods who must give his own party some fresh reasons to rally around.

The wounds inflicted on the president were made all the more scarring by the White House decision to bring him back from the Middle East and put him on the campaign trail for a full week of jTC full-throated pleading for his party and his administration. The inference everyone in politics now will draw is that this president, like so many others before him, has no ability to do anything for another politician other than raise money.

Holding together a Democratic coalition may prove to be as tricky as dealing with the newly emboldened and newly empowered Republicans. If Mr. Clinton tries, for example, to move too far to the right to accommodate conservatives on the welfare reform issue, he will face the likelihood of substantial defections among liberals who have been the core of his support on the health care reform issue.

Indeed, it is probably fair to say that, at the very least, Mr. Clinton will be obliged to put aside or drastically alter most of his legislative plans for the final two years of his term.

The dimensions of the Republican success were so striking that the whole context of the presidential campaign has been recast.

For one thing, although it may come to nothing, it would be a good bet now that there will be more sotto voce muttering within the Democratic Party about whether someone should challenge Mr. Clinton for the 1996 nomination.

That could mean a candidate from the left arguing that the president has been too quick to compromise with the conservatives -- the most obvious possibilities being the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson or perhaps someone from the Senate, such as Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Or there could be a challenge from the Democratic Party's conservative wing complaining that Mr. Clinton has been too accommodating to the liberals -- and that these election returns make that point. But there is no obvious possibility to play that role.

The results also may alter the shape of the contest for the Republican nomination to oppose Mr. Clinton in two years.

Such Washington figures as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich will have new stature as public figures that, at least in Mr. Dole's case, might translate into a better chance for the Republican nomination than he enjoyed before the 1994 votes were counted.

But the returns also may produce a half-dozen other possibilities for the Republican national ticket -- big-state governors or fresh faces in the Senate. The one certainty at this point is that all the conventional wisdom about the shape of American politics today has been tossed into the ash heap.

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