Running on empty

November 06, 1997|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- I doubt if Al Gore broke into an exuberant jig after Tuesday night's election returns were in. Or even a mildly enthusiastic Macarena.

Nor was there champagne-popping by Democratic congressmen, senators and governors who hope to hang onto their jobs.

They saw the future -- and it looked threadbare.

There were ominous signals for Mr. Gore, who hopes to inherit the White House in 2000. And bleak tidings for Bill Clinton, who'd love to reclaim the U.S. House from Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1998.

Oh, Dems were galled enough to watch Gov. Christine Whitman's midnight nail-biter, outlasting a revolt by angry New Jersey voters and an out-of-nowhere surge by Jim McGreevey.

Golden Girl Christie survived the near-crackup, but her national ambitions are on ice.

Democrats were braced for a couple of easy Republican triumphs. They expected crime-busting Mayor Rudy Giuliani to win in a New York City landslide. They weren't shocked when Jim Gilmore rode Christian Coalition support and fury at car taxes to become Virginia governor.

No, Dems' anxieties for 1998 and 2000 went beyond Tuesday. After all, spin doctors could tilt those numbers like a fixed pinball machine. Their problem was more brutal:

The party's broke, certainly compared to cash-flush Republicans. And its poverty may not change for critical 1998 House/Senate races.

You could see Democrats' thin wallets in evidence across the country. They're usually outspent by the Republican National Committee. But a 5-to-1 ratio bodes annihilation.

Faustian bargain

For their plight, Dems can thank Bill Clinton and the he made in 1996 -- to win at all costs, milking shady foreign characters and pushing election laws over the cliff.

Never mind that Sen. Fred Thompson's desultory hearings didn't nail Mr. Clinton with a ''smoking gun.''

Instead of concentrating on winning '97 elections, the Democratic National Committee bigwigs have been frantically returning thousands of tainted dollars and hiring lawyers.

That, boys and girls, is why the DNC is $15 million in the hole: Legal bills caused by Mr. Clinton's '96 shenanigans. And why Mr. BTC Clinton, even as he preaches reform, is habitually in hotel ballrooms waving a tin cup.

But Mr. Clinton's tambourine-beating was too late to help cash-strapped Democrats this time. You could see the effect in New Jersey, where the Republican National Committee blew $760,000 on ''advocacy ads'' (without mentioning Mrs. Whitman) showing Democrats as tax-hiking, welfare-spending wastrels.

The Dems' flat wallets were even more visible in Virginia, where Don Beyer, a Volvo dealer running uphill for governor, had to borrow $400,000 personally to stay on TV. He was swamped by Mr. Gilmore, $2 million in his jeans from his national party.

Aside from learning to dine at McDonald's, Democrats could take other lessons from their Tuesday tumult:

1. Taxes, taxes, taxes. That's the voters' obsession.

2. Don't overlook the religious right wing's power. The Christian Coalition was Mr. Gilmore's quiet ally in Virginia. No wonder Pat Robertson strutted around the victory room.

3. Don't take African-Americans for granted. When Doug Wilder, Virginia's first black governor, sat out the election, so did the Democrats' African-American base. A disaster.

4. Don't count on gender politics that worked for Mr. Clinton in 1996. Mrs. Whitman basically split among women voters. Independent working women follow their pocketbooks.

As for dreams Al Gore and Dems harbor of digging out of the red, matching cash-rich Republicans: Forget it. The day after Tuesday's fracas, Republicans were staging a $6 million extravaganza. Tip $5,000 in the hat, schmooze with Senate leader Trent Lott and Speaker Newt -- same sins the GOP laid on Mr. Clinton.

As The Gipper used to say, ''There they go again . . . ''

Sandy Grady is a Philadelphia Daily News columnist.

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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