Bill Gates loses at the polls

November 11, 1998|By Robert Reno

MOST OF the people who "lost" last week's election weren't even on the ballot.

Offhand I'd said that a majority of pundits and about 100 percent of the scandal-wallowing TV news corps got creamed along with the bulk of the polling profession and a good portion of the corporate community, which spent the equivalent of a slow year's profits on electing a filibuster-proof Senate and a House of Representatives to match. Two conspicuous corporate losers were Bill Gates of Microsoft and Sandy Weill, co-czar of Citigroup.

Mr. Gate's latest pie in the face came flying at him from North Carolina, where he'd done his best to re-elect a hog farmer to the Senate, and from his own district, where he'd invested money in the re-election of Rep. Rick White. The hog farmer lost to a rich trial lawyer and Mr. White got clobbered despite the assiduous work he'd undertaken in Congress to harass Mr. Gates' enemies.

Mr. Weill's loss must be particularly dispiriting, coming as it does on top of the troubles he's having stitching together Travelers and Citicorp into a coherent mass that will be the terror -- rather than the laughingstock -- of the financial world. I wouldn't wish it on Mr. Weill to have to face Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, as head of the Senate Banking Committee, a commanding position he will snatch from Sen. Al D'Amato, a New York Republican, when the new Congress convenes.

Tough nut to crack

Mr. D'Amato charmed easily, if expensively. Now, Mr. Weill will find Mr. Gramm a tougher nut, because Mr. Gramm's not only one of the Senate's champion fund raisers but he also has all these principles he carries in his baggage as a former right-wing economics professor who's out to make the world safe for capitalism.

Mr. Weill's going to have to spend an awful lot of time and money training Mr. Gramm to eat out of his hand, and even then a lot of people who've tried have been badly bitten. In the current session, Republican leaders moved heaven and earth to get a financial services deregulation bill that would be pleasing to the insurance, banking and securities industries. Mr. Weill badly needed such a bill to ease the merger of Citicorp and Travelers.

Then along came Mr. Gramm, who threatened a filibuster and knocked the slats out of the deal. Mr. Gramm said he was objecting to a rather innocuous provision that would have encouraged banks to reinvest in their own communities. It was hard for the banks to swallow but not so bad-tasting when sugared with provisions that would allow them to gobble up NTC insurance companies and brokerages.

But Mr. Gramm stood on principle, he said, and the bill crashed and burned while spoilsports suggested he only killed it because he suspected Mr. D'Amato was going in the tank and he wanted all that fund-raising leverage that would come his way if he were chairman of the Banking Committee when the banking laws underwent their most sweeping revision in 65 years.

Anyway, Mr. Weill's a charmer so I'm sure he'll pull this thing off somehow. But I can't imagine how Mr. Gates is going to recover from the wreckage of his first major venture into politics. In the just-completed election cycle, Microsoft pumped $400,000 into GOP congressional campaigns. It hired Haley Barbour, the former Republican national chairman, and Kerry Knott, chief of staff to Dick Armey, the House majority leader. Mr. Gates staged a rally at a Microsoft facility in Charlotte during which he and Sen. Lauch Faircloth, the hog farmer, all but warbled hog calls in each other's praise.

Mr. Faircloth got his head handed to him and Mr. White lost in Washington state, leaving Microsoft at the mercy of such congressional enemies as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who resents Microsoft's treatment of its competitors who happen to do business in that state.

Oh well, if it was a rotten year for software nerds and bankers, there were some bankers, Swiss ones mostly, who rejoiced. Mr. D'Amato's scheme to make his re-election practically a referendum on whether to smart bomb Switzerland fell flat. Jewish voters were unimpressed and deserted him in human waves.

My own theory on the failure of Mr. D'Amato's Swiss-bashing strategy is Jews simply have a deep prejudice against being treated like idiots. It's a failing many of us gentiles share.

3' Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

Pub Date: 11/11/98

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