Mistaking a moment for a mandate

March 10, 1995|By Stanley B. Greenberg

Washington -- THESE ARE heady days in the House.

They are no less heady for Republican theorists and consultants, who are working feverishly to fabricate a mandate for all the legislative activity by attempting to elevate the 1994 election and give it meaning.

That rush to judgment in the House, they argue, is not mere politics but a contract steeped in all the legitimacy of a popular conservative upheaval.

Irving Kristol, co-editor of The Public Interest, calls what Speaker Newt Gingrich is doing "revolutionary."

The Gingrich agenda, he says, has "ratified the 1994 congressional elections as having been what political scientists call a "critical election," one that changes -- indeed reverses -- the relation of political parties to the American electorate."

The Republicans' excited conclusion is that conservatism now forms the nation's political center.

The message sent to the faithful is: Stop being embarrassed by the last Republican National Convention's bold display of conservatism and run an unapologetic presidential campaign in 1996 that will, in Mr. Kristol's words, "ratify the popular mandate the party has been rewarded."

The mandate is a contrivance. The 52 percent majority for Republican House candidates does not resemble the Democratic landslides of 1958, 1964 and 1974.

As gauged by exit polls, the election produced no noticeable decline in the Democrats' advantage over the Republicans on party identification.

In its television advertising last year, the GOP was silent on its Contract with America and on Reaganism. Virtually no Republican congressional candidates mentioned the contract either. They ran against the "corrupt" Democratic Congress.

Even as the voters were throwing out the congressional Democrats, the voters showed no interest in Reaganomics. They preferred Clintonomics.

Nationwide, Democratic and Republican candidates for the House campaigned to a draw in the critical middle bloc of voters with family incomes of $30,000 to $50,000 a year.

Republicans are right to call the election an upheaval, but in hastening to shape it into a conservative icon they overlook bigger forces at work.

Yes, the scale of the Democrats' loss in the House was the worst for any party in 50 years -- but the scale of George Bush's electoral decline in 1992 has scarcely been exceeded in our history.

These are not conventional partisan swings, but these are also not ordinary times. On Election Day, the two parties stood at a parity of disreputability, at nearly their lowest point in public esteem in 30 years.

The upheavals are a product of public disaffection and form part of the same story -- the crashing of a century-old party order that no longer lets people feel confident about the future. What will be contested now is what the public wants from its politics, government and leaders.

The imposition of a conservative mandate invites Republicans to misread the moment. That is why Congress may overreach and try to slash the social supports that the public believes are integral to a good society.

That is why the Christian right may demand a "pro-life" presidential ticket. And that is why the leading Republican presidential candidates may over-shift to the right, believing that they are landing in the center.

Discovery of the real gap between the public's wishes and the imagined mandate may leave the GOP not with a conservative

contract but with conservative tactics that can win elections but do little to raise the nation's spirits.

When their mandate idea falls away, Republicans can fall back on what was probably their most effective charge over the past two years. The government always manages to foul things up. But with control of Congress, the Republicans may not be believable as outsiders.

The Republicans can become a home for every angry group -- those who resent immigrants, welfare recipients, abortionists, black people, strong women and politicians.

There may be a formula for winning in a collection of angry voices, but the volume of sound would not be a measure of a conservative ascendancy. The opposite might be true. The tactics would be the refuge of partisans uncertain of their ideas.

The Republican presidential majority that collapsed in 1992 was forged in the upheavals of the 1960s. That period produced a realignment of the parties as large portions of the white middle class shifted to the Republicans.

At their best moment under Ronald Reagan, the Republicans advanced ideas about entrepreneurship and growth, respect for religious sentiment and a critique of cultural and racial liberalism.

But with Reaganism losing its hold on the country and middle-class voters drifting away, the Republicans have sought to resuscitate the '60s.

President Bush turned to Willie Horton scare tactics after the party's platform was reduced to "read my lips: no new taxes."

His resort to a racial card was no measure of GOP strength. It was the measure of an unstable Republican coalition unable to win over America on the strength of ideas.

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