WASHINGTON — Washington.--How deep is the political divide reflected in last Tuesday's elections? What is its nature? Does the defeat of Democrats at so many levels in so many states mean that Democrats are no longer the majority party, the established party of the South? Does the overwhelming Republican victory mean the GOP is once more the dominant American party -- for the first time since the New Deal? Has the long anticipated party realignment finally occurred?
What exactly has the Democratic Party become that so many Americans find unacceptable?
Oklahoma Democrat Dave McCurdy, who suffered a stinging defeat in his race for the seat of retiring Democratic Senator David L. Boren, speaks of ''visceral anti-Clintonism'' in his region.
What is Clintonism anyway?
During the campaign and since, Bill Clinton framed the election as a choice between the past and the present. He returned to this theme Thursday when he delivered the Carroll Quigley lecture at Georgetown University, from which he graduated in 1968. Quigley, the President explained, believed that a distinctive American characteristic -- responsible for much the nation's success -- was the belief that the future can be better than the past, and that we have an obligation to make it so. Before he became president, Mr. Clinton said, he believed most Americans shared this ''future preference.'' Now he is not certain.
He thinks that Americans who rejected his vision and his party's candidates were choosing the past and rebuffing the notion that the future can be and should be better than the past. Clearly, Mr. Clinton does not consider the possibility that there may be other visions of a better future, and other routes for arriving.
It is strange that a man as smart as the president should not understand that in our elections voters choose between alternative ways to alternative futures. Equally strange that he does not understand that some of us believe he and his party's policies are taking us into a collectivist future which will transfer more and more resources and decisions from individuals and local communities to the federal government while progressively depriving us of control over our lives.
Maybe we're wrong about how to get to the better future we all want. But maybe President Clinton and the Democrats of collectivist bent are wrong. In proposing great new federal powers and programs -- of which the health-care plan is but one clear example -- it is the president who seems stuck in the past, urging Americans to adopt collectivist strategies that are being rejected and or profoundly reformed in many of the countries in which they have been adopted.
At Georgetown the president also spoke of trade policy, of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation -- of removing barriers to free trade, stimulating economic growth, creating jobs, expanding markets, opening societies, stimulating liberalization and democratization. Then I think he sounded like the future, not the past, and also like Ronald Reagan and George Bush, both of whom were apostles of progress through trade and growth.
It will be easy for him to get bipartisan support on policies that promote free markets and democracy. They are bipartisan, American ideas about what kind of future we desire for the world. It is good that Mr. Clinton is meeting the Asia-Pacific powers this week, good that he will be attending a hemispheric conference in Miami -- and promoting freer trade at both meetings.
It is good that he understands that open markets lead to more jobs, higher living standards, more peace, more freedom, more democracy. That is a road to the future most Americans can travel with enthusiasm.
The Democrats did not lose votes for advocating these ideas and associated policies. They lost votes on big government and high taxes, not because those who voted against them lack faith in the future but because they have faith in themselves, preferring to make their own decisions, spend their own money and control their own lives and communities.
Most Americans reject the vision of a future in which more and more decisions are made by fewer and fewer officials who, moreover, take an ever larger share of our income in taxes because they imagine they are better able than we are to spend our money wisely or responsibly.
George Will has written that the elections of 1994 were Ronald Reagan's third victory. I agree. They are also George McGovern's third defeat.
When the Democratic Party adopted the ''McGovern-Frasier Reforms'' before the 1972 elections, it rejected its traditional leaders and delivered itself to the control of political elites whose views were very different than those of most Democratic voters and ordinary Americans. The new elites represented a ''new politics'' that voters do not like.