It's the baseball strike, stupid Angry white men

November 18, 1994|By Jamie Malanowski

BY NOW THE post-election interpreting is over, and, surprisingly, nearly everyone got it wrong.

The pundits say the Republicans romped because they were the party of smaller government and lower taxes and were tougher on crime, and because Newt Gingrich was a brilliant strategist.

Well, when haven't they been the party of smaller government and lower taxes and been tougher on crime? And Newt Gingrich has been around for years without being a genius. Why were things so different in 1994?

The answer is simple: It's the baseball strike, stupid.

Look at the facts. As analysts have pointed out, the electorate was displaying a palpable anger and disgust, and the voting bloc that most strongly swung Republican was middle-class, middle-aged white men.

Now, more than anything else this year, what put the middle-class, middle-aged white man in a bad mood? The economy? The economy was in pretty good shape. The collapse of the health-care plan? Please.

It was the baseball strike.

Don't forget, baseball was having a terrific year. Many teams were still contending, and this year for the first time there would have been six division champs and two wild cards.

In other words, fans of eight teams would have had something to cheer. Add the fans of teams that contended but fell just short, and you'd have had a whole bunch of American guys feeling something between happy and hopeful all the way until spring training.

Moreover, several players were threatening to break hallowed records, giving all fans a chance to get excited.

Instead, action was halted just as the blood of the middle-aged male fan was about to boil. And interrupting the male as his blood is about to boil creates a cranky, surly fellow.

No one stood to gain quite as much from this mess as the frequently cranky Bob Dole and the famously surly Newt Gingrich.

Think how things might have been different. First, if it weren't for the strike, many voters would have ignored the campaign until the World Series ended.

Instead, voters had nearly three months to stew over their discontents.

Second, imagine Dan Rostenkowski leading Chicago South Siders in their cheers for the division-winning White Sox.

Or Ann Richards, daily benefiting from how the sub-.500 play of the Texas Rangers reflected on the administrative abilities of the team's co-owner, her opponent George W. Bush.

Or Mario Cuomo joining the Series-winning Yankees in a ticker-tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes. George Pataki who?

Once you understand the significance of the strike, certain events take on a greater clarity. In September, nothing helped the GOP more than the broadcast of Ken Burns' series "Baseball," which was awash in boatloads of nostalgia.

Since nostalgia has always been a Republican sentiment, the series enhanced the GOP's appeal.

More important was Newt's Contract With America, which was announced at just around playoff time, when fans were not only irascible but confused.

Accustomed to spending that time of the year tuned into baseball, they didn't know what to watch instead.

They opened their TV Guides, where the Republicans had placed an advertisement, and saw that the GOP wanted to end the marriage penalty and give tax credits for children. In other words, candy.

In retrospect, this election was decided not when Bill Clinton got Ira Magaziner involved in health-care reform but when he failed to get Labor Secretary Robert Reich involved in a strike settlement before the World Series was canceled.

Meanwhile, while most pundits are asking if this was a watershed election, I prefer to focus on something else: Was it a plot?

The other day, a week after the voting, the baseball owners announced a new proposal. It doesn't include the hated salary cap, and it could have been made long before the strike.

But that might have preserved a Democratic Congress, which was threatening to end baseball's cherished antitrust exemption. Is it possible the owners threw the season just to elect a Republican Congress? How would that be for a November surprise?

Jamie Malanowski is a senior editor of Esquire.

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