Win or lose Tuesday, GOP has wrongly abandoned tax-cutting agenda

November 01, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday morning, when the black bat, night, has fled, professional Republicans and Democrats -- almost the only people who will care -- will pronounce themselves pleased as punch by the election results. Neither will be truthful -- why start now? -- but Democrats may be most pleased.

Particularly if Gray Davis plucks this year's biggest prize, California's governorship. Nationally, Republicans cannot really win: If they do well, they will suffer dangerous delusions of adequacy.

The contest between Lieutenant Governor Davis and Attorney General Dan Lungren will determine control of the state most important in presidential politics. Also, the next governor will influence control of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2002 through 2012.

California's 52 congressional districts are held by 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans. After the 2000 census, California may have four more seats. Computer-literate California politicians (computers are today's tools for drawing gerrymandered districts) can significantly influence the outcome in up to 10 districts. The gubernatorial election will decide control of the computers, and perhaps 10 seats for 10 years.

With 54 electoral votes now -- one-fifth of the total to win the White House -- and perhaps 58 in 2004, California is weightier in presidential politics than any state since New York in the 1870s. (As late as 1944 New York City alone cast 7.5 percent of the nation's popular vote for president.)

Golden state

Were Republicans to capture Sacramento, while taking Florida's governorship away from the Democrats, they might hold the governorships of the 10 most populous states. (Ohio and Georgia are too close to call.) The loss of California would handicap the 2000 Republican presidential campaign in a way that would cost millions of Republican dollars to counteract.

Republican congressional majorities slouched toward Election Day having proven, by end-of-session capitulations to President Clinton, that numerical supremacy without political purpose is pointless. Voltaire said Frederick the Great seasoned his food with gunpowder. What have congressional Republicans, models of nonbellicosity, been sprinkling on their pizza -- Prozac?

Harry Truman, annoyed that Democrats were sounding too much like Republicans, supposedly (apocrypha encrust his legend) said: Give people a choice between a Republican and a Republican and they will pick a Republican every time.

If Republicans gain congressional strength on Tuesday, after defining themselves in October as (slightly) reluctant Democrats, they will have no mandate.

And they are supposed to gain. In the past 60 years, the party not holding the White House has averaged significant gains in House and Senate seats in off-year elections, and even bigger gains in midterm elections in a president's second term.

Republicans will greet any gains with the complacent observation that they have had their best three consecutive elections since the 1920s. And they will congratulate themselves on prospering without a program.

During the 1956 Suez crisis, the warden of All Souls College, Oxford, called his college "a hotbed of cold feet." That describes congressional Republicans when confronting Mr. Clinton. But their numbers could be increased by small numbers of voters.

Counting votes

In 1980, Republicans gained 12 seats and control of the Senate. But Democratic candidates got nearly 3 million more votes than Republican candidates. (Delaware, the least populous state, understandably rushed to be first to ratify the Constitution with its provision for equal treatment of all states in the Senate; the most populous state, Virginia, had 11 times more voters than Delaware. Today, Wyoming's senators can cancel California's, who represent 66 times more voters.) But if in 1980 just 34,000 voters in five states (where more than 5 million votes were cast in Senate contests) had voted the other way, Democrats would have kept control of the Senate, stalling the Reagan agenda. And in 1982, a switch of 34,000 of the nearly 2.5 million votes cast in five states would have cost Republicans control of the Senate.

If Democrats awaken Wednesday with broad smiles produced by many slender victories, they will be confirmed in their demagoguery about "saving" the "surplus" for Social Security. Actually, there is no surplus (subtract the $99 billion surplus of Social Security taxes from the $71 billion budget "surplus" and you find the real deficit: $28 billion). Mr. Clinton threatened to use vetoes to cause a government shutdown, for which the GOP BTC would be blamed, to force Republicans to spend even more of the fictitious surplus than they, whose conservatism is fictitious, were itching to do.

Silly pols

Which is not to say that Tuesday's elections do not pose an interesting question. It is: Which is worse, Democrats pretending to believe patent nonsense about "saving" a "surplus" for Social Security, or Republicans abandoning their pretense of believing in the tax-cutting, limited-government agenda that won them the congressional control that no longer seems to matter much?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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