An Anti-Civics Lesson

November 10, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- On the morning after the night before, the country was drowning in metaphors. There was water, water everywhere: a tidal wave, a watershed, a sea change, a tsunami.

The waterlogged change in the House and Senate was nowhere nearly as astounding as the internal change in the politicians. Some were transformed -- eeek -- into incumbents. They were -- ohmygawd -- insiders, legislators.

Many who had mercilessly trashed their opponents as ''career politicians'' who released mass murderers from prison and corrupted ''our values'' reappeared at their victory rallies thanking their ''worthy opponents'' for ''service to the state'' and wishing their families well. Have a nice day of defeat.

On Monday, Newt Gingrich had compared the Democrats to Susan Smith, suggesting that voters opposed to murdering toddlers should vote Republican. By Wednesday, he had changed back to Dr. Jekyll, talking about his ''obligations'' and promising a search for ''common ground'' with the Democrats.

Bob Dole, for that matter, a man whose wit has been eroded by acid over the years, used the unfamiliar word ''responsibility'' three times in one sound bite. As in: We have a responsibility to govern.

At the risk of running the water metaphor down the drain, we all need a shower after this election. Before the 104th Congress sits down in the seats they so loved to loathe they ought to all be locked in a room and forced to watch at least two hours of the campaign ads they ran against their opponents and against the institution that they now have to make work. Having run attack ads on the ''airline,'' they are now in the pilot's seat. How do you get the people back on board?

The story of 1994 wasn't very different for men or women. Two years ago in the much ballyhooed Year of the Woman, female candidates were the personification, the genderfication, of change. They were the different voice.

This year, they sounded less like something called ''women.'' They won and lost as Republicans and Democrats, challengers and incumbents. It wasn't a bad year for women if you look at the raw numbers. The painfully slow climb is still up. As of this writing, there will be two more women in the House, one more in the Senate.

But the faces have changed. A half-dozen of the Democratic women who won marginal districts in 1992 -- from Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky in Pennsylvania to Karan English in Arizona -- appear to have lost. In the last Congress all but three of the women were pro-choice. In the next Congress, nine define themselves as pro-life.

The voices have changed even more. In this campaign whatever archaic or hopeful ideas the country had about the female difference were pretty well shattered.

Many used to assume that women shouldn't and wouldn't go negative. Not anymore. Even Dianne Feinstein barely won with an advertising slugmatch against an empty suit with deep pockets. Nowhere could you tell the candidates' chromosomes from their commercials.

Nevertheless, the turnoff factor of this gruesome campaign season may have a disproportionate effect on new women in politics. As Ellen Malcolm of EMILY's List admits, ''I can't tell you how many women I approached this year who said they wouldn't want to run for office. They see the process as personally destructive and totally unappealing.''

So do men, but the numbers tell a gender tale. For the first time since the Center for the American Woman and Politics has been keeping records, the number of women running for state legislatures -- the political farm team -- has dropped. As the center's Ruth Mandel acknowledges, ''The price has been rising, so has the personal cost. They may be asking, 'Do I want to put myself through this?' ''

That's a question that will resonate with other would-be candidates and with, to use a quaint term, citizens. Negative ads work. Everybody says so. They work against the other candidate. The more insidious victory is against government. Any government.

In the words of Ann Richards, who will be sorely missed, ''This is not the end of the world, it is the end of a campaign.'' But what an anti-civics class this has been.

Collectively, we've just been subjected to a $350 million sales pitch on the evils of our own political system. A tidal wave of nastiness, a tsunami of negativism, a flood of hostility. Gosh, it makes me thirsty just thinking of 1996.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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