Reagan's Third Landslide

November 10, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton defined the election as a referendum on Ronald Reagan's 1980s, thereby taking up the gauntlet Republicans had thrown down with their Reaganite ''contract.'' The referendum produced a lot of Reagan Republicans.

If the election's results had been an indiscriminate massacre of incumbents, the election would have been merely a national temper tantrum. Instead it was a resounding ideological statement.

Conservatism's long march through institutions began 30 years ago with Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican Party and now has produced turbulence that is especially remarkable because no remarkable issue or event catalyzed it. Slavery in the 1850s, the panic of 1893 and the Depression in the 1930s churned the party system. Today the nation is at peace and prosperous, yet it is seething.

However, the supposedly intricate and unfathomable feelings of the electorate are really neither. With breezy frankness voters have said approximately this: Something is amiss when a government that does not adequately deliver the mail delivers condoms to children. That is, government often is incompetent at basics and offensive regarding matters that are none of its business.

For Democrats, the point of nominating a ''New Democrat,'' particularly a Southerner, for president was to reverse the Republican trend that already was alarming Democrats by 1968, when Hubert Humphrey carried only one Southern state, Texas. But Mr. Clinton has strengthened the trend, and at the expense of such legitimate ''New Democrats'' as Reps. Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, whose Senate candidacies were swamped by Tuesday's anti-Clinton tide.

The country is much more conservative than it was when it elected Reagan, and significantly more conservative than in 1992. But liberals will be a larger portion of congressional Democrats in the 104th Congress than in the 103rd. If President Clinton remains to the left, however, he will be trying to govern against the grain of the country and will be peripheral to the nation's political conversation.

If he moves to the right, he will alienate his base, such as it is -- liberals, African-Americans and public employees. That base cannot re-elect him but can help unelect him. Regarding the dangerousness of disaffected liberals, Mr. Clinton should ask Jimmy Carter about the spring of 1980.

President Clinton cannot win bidding wars with Republicans in tailoring tax cuts or welfare reforms for a conservative country. Yet if he adopts a veto strategy regarding Republican initiatives, who then is the obstructer of ''change'' and the author of ''gridlock?''

And speaking of recycling ideas, some Democrats dream of President Clinton emulating in 1996 Truman's 1948 run against the ''do-nothing 80th Congress.''

But there are three problems. First, Truman was Trumanesque; Mr. Clinton would be pretending. Second, Truman rallied liberals and labor when they were formidable and when government enjoyed unnatural prestige as organizer of the victory in war. Third, the 104th Congress will not do nothing.

The implications of 1994 for Republicans in 1996 begin here: Come January, Republicans will hold governorships in eight of the nine largest states. These eight have 218 of the 270 total electoral votes needed to win the White House.

The previous Senate contained approximately 25 solidly conservative Republicans. The next Senate will have approximately 40. This is partly a tribute to the candidate recruitment, fund raising and tactical advice of Phil Gramm, chairman of the Senate campaign committee. However, it will help his principal rival for the 1996 nomination, Bob Dole. Mr. Dole is substantially less conservative than Mr. Gramm and is now to the left of the new center of the Republican's Senate contingent. However, as leader of a conservative majority, Mr. Dole will be compelled to seem more conservative than his inclinations.

Another benefit accrued to him Tuesday. An ally of a Dole ally -- George Pataki, protege of Sen. Al D'Amato -- will be governor of New York when that state holds perhaps the most important primary in the nominating schedule.

However, prophecy is optional folly, so instead let's savor the moment. It is immeasurably satisfying that three days after Ronald Reagan announced his final battle, his countrymen gave him his third national victory.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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