Gingrich is the real loser in this election debacle

November 06, 1998|By Tom Teepen

IRONICALLY, the roots of Tuesday's defeat for Newt Gingrich's Republicans were in Mr. Gingrich's apparent triumph four years earlier in the Contract With America election that produced a Republican Congress.

Mr. Gingrich fancies himself a canny political technician and, yes, he can change the odd flat tire, maybe fix a frayed electrical cord. But he is also a political romantic, and as a romantic he wildly misread his own 1994 accomplishment.

Mr. Gingrich and the rest of the GOP right came out of the '94 election giddy with the thought they had won not just a political contest but an ideological war. Here, finally, was the validation they had worked for since their campus days as Young Americans for Freedom. The way now lay open to wash away, as in a flash flood, whole trailer parks of tacky liberal policy going back even to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.

Actually, the electorate was voting only to force more moderation on the new Clinton presidency -- and voting even for that in low numbers and often by small margins.

No revolution

The constituency was scant for the "revolution" Mr. Gingrich then declared, and decreased when voters caught on that the populist rhetoric of the Contract meant, in practice, giving corporations license to shoot the environment on sight and funding tax cuts tilted to the richest. Voters were victims of a political bait-and-switch. Mr. Gingrich and company had market-tested how the Contract sounded, not what they intended.

But in their continuing triumphalism, Republican conservatives mistook Mr. Clinton's re-election as an electoral fumble, an aberration, not the endorsement that it was of the president's adjustment to the '94 rebuke. Hence, the House's conviction -- poll after poll to the contrary notwithstanding -- that voters really wanted Mr. Clinton thrown out of the White House.

First time contest

Now Mr. Gingrich argues that, hey, this is the first time since the 1920s that Republicans will control Congress through three election cycles. That's so and that's something. But Democrats win the first-time-since contest. This is the first time since 1934 that a president's party didn't lose seats in a midterm election, the first time since 1822 that a White House gained seats in the sixth year of a presidency.

Mr. Gingrich still had it wrong after the Tuesday drubbing. He said Republicans should concentrate on what the public wants -- tax cuts and saving Social Security. But tax cuts are near the bottom of most voter wish lists, and Mr. Gingrich's idea of saving Social Security is to privatize it virtually out of existence, leaving only a politically fragile dole for the elderly poor. More bait-and-switch.

This election saw the state Republican parties extend their solid gains of the '90s by continuing to field governors with a knack for assembling socially diverse support.

Will the national Republican Party persist in the romantic notion that with just a bit more ideological pushing, a balky electorate finally will come boiling into the streets for the radical revolution the party's right dreams about?

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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