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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Now hear this

The GOP thought it was its year. But Democrats got the last laugh by talking issues, not investigations

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

To understand the deep bewilderment that Election Day '98 visited on the Republicans, you had only to look at Senators Al D'Amato and Lauch Faircloth, two of Bill Clinton's sweatiest pursuers, making their baffled concessions. Or to hear Newt Gingrich, who said last April that he would never give another speech without mentioning the White House scandals, complaining about how it was the media that had been obsessed with the whole nasty thing. Or to see Henry Hyde, whose House Judiciary Committee must still find its way down from Mount Monica, as he promised last week to descend by the shortest trail he could find.

To put it another way, one day it was Clinton whose job was on the line. The next it was Gingrich. But the surprising election of 1998 did more than take a load off one man's shoulders and put it on another's till he dropped. It brought home that all year the governing majority in Congress has done just about anything but govern. From the moment in January that Monica Lewinsky became as famous as Michael Jordan, official Washington and its media auxiliary have been transfixed by the President's sex drive. And for a while, who wasn't? But in time most people moved back to matters nearer at hand--getting ahead, getting settled, getting more sleep, anything but "that." Somehow Congress did not hear. The tobacco deal collapsed; campaign-finance reform died; the patients' bill of rights was shelved. Through it all, the Republicans on Capitol Hill stayed on message. Too bad for them that the message was all Monica all the time.

On Tuesday, voters got the chance to send Washington their own message. It was two words: Shut up! So the election that was supposed to be another G.O.P. blowout ended with a gain of five House seats for the Democrats, no change in the Senate and the morning-after spectacle of dumbstruck Republicans. They will still rule the next Congress, but with nothing like the headlong confidence they brought there after their triumph in 1994, when they knew in their bones that they were the party with a direct channel to the majority will. What most Americans these days appear to want is reasonable safeguards for a personal well-being that they otherwise wish to pursue without interference. As the pollsters keep discovering, they care about education, HMO reform and shoring up Social Security. They also want a Congress that operates effectively on those matters and a President who's a bit like a mayor, a ground-level problem solver, even if he has his own jet.

There were Republicans this year who got it. Texas Governor George W. Bush, the (very) early G.O.P. front runner for the 2000 presidential race, is so intent on classroom issues he's done everything short of write his agenda on a chalkboard. But for the most part, it was Democrats who could talk the talk in '98, just as it was Republicans who sounded most plausible on things like budget cutting and welfare reform in '94.

In some important ways, of course, this was a business-as-usual election. Incumbents, who enjoy an overwhelming advantage in money, were overwhelmingly re-elected. But for months to come the Republicans will claw at one another over whether they fumbled this election because they were too belligerent or because they were not belligerent enough. The fight will be over moving to the center vs. mobilizing the base, "compassionate" vs. "principled" conservatism. The G.O.P. predicament is written in stone by now. The religious conservatives who provide that listless base complain that party leadership offered no agenda this year to bring them to the polls. But a good part of the agenda they have in mind--against abortion rights, gays and legalized gambling--is not one that sells with most voters. In the early 1970s, the Democrats drifted into disaster after they let the left wing of their party seize the wheel. Now the G.O.P. has to aim for the same political center that the Democrats have been struggling back toward for the past decade. For anyone trying to win elections right now, the two most frightening words in American politics may be "activist base."

So even Republican leaders were praising the Democrats, ripened by their own past afflictions, for their shrewd strategy going into Tuesday. Instead of expensive TV advertising, Democrats stressed organization and turnout. (It worked. On Tuesday 37% of all eligible voters showed up. The Republican strategy was based on a 33% turnout, in which their base would have loomed larger.) The Democrats' own activist wings turned out. Unions struggled successfully, via rallies, phone banks and radio shows, to get their members to the polls. Black leaders worked on producing a turnout that saved Democrats in the South.

Early on, the party decided not to send Clinton to big political crowd shows, which consume time and money and draw attention away from candidates and issues. (Not incidentally, they would also have reminded voters of their mixed feelings about the Big Guy.) Democrats recruited more conservative and even pro-life candidates, which made it easier for disenchanted Republicans to feel comfortable about defecting. It's no surprise that 4 out of 5 voters who identified themselves as liberal voted for Democrats. And among the half of all Americans who call themselves moderates, Democrats also prevailed, 54% to 43%. As newly elevated presidential adviser Doug Sosnik put it, "I'm 42 years old, and this is the first time in my adult political life where being a Democrat is being in the mainstream."

In 1994 Newt Gingrich made his party a majority in both houses of Congress by nationalizing an off-year election, turning it into a referendum on the Republicans' Contract with America. His mistake this year was to try the same trick, but backward. Where once the Republicans promised to bring the voters' concerns to Washington, this time they tried to bring Washington's obsessions to the voters. Though most candidates of both parties took pains to steer clear of the White House scandal, the G.O.P. leadership, in a campaign personally approved by Gingrich, brought it all up again in last-minute TV spots in districts around the country. Whatever else they cared about, people went to the polls with just a glimmer of a suspicion that Republicans were eager to drag them through the mess forever.

So who can blame the voters of Minnesota if they think Jesse ("The Body") Ventura is no less plausible as a leadership figure than Newt ("The Mouth") Gingrich or Bill ("The Libido") Clinton? (Plus Ventura's got the lat spread those other guys never had.) And though Ventura will find that running a state is a lot harder than running away with it, he's got one thing right so far. He says that no matter what else is on his plate, he's going to coach the same high school football team he's been coaching for a while. That alone should put him within hearing distance of what a real crowd is shouting about.

Big winners, hot issues

Some of last week's races showed not only what happened when the hot buttons got pushed this year, but also how they may work in Election 2000

Race: Kansas' third district
Issue the christian right

The state G.O.P. chairman has called the district "the birthplace of the revolution" that empowered Christian conservatives--among them incumbent Republican Vince Snowbarger. But Democrat Dennis Moore beat back charges that he's soft on crime; he proved a safe choice for Republican moderates, who swarmed to the polls to help elect him, 52% to 48%.

Race: Pennsylvania's 15th district
Issue social security

Candidates in both parties, but usually Democrats, scare seniors with doomsday talk about Social Security. Instead, Republican Patrick Toomey proffered something to support--a plan to partly privatize Social Security. Opponent Roy Afflerbach seemed out of touch and defensive in tagging Toomey's plan too "risky." He lost what had been a Democratic seat, 55% to 45%.

Race: North Carolina's second district
Issue: the lewinsky scandal

In August, Dan Page became the first Republican candidate to assault his foe with a Lewinsky ad. The Washington Post noticed, generating national attention and dollars for Page. Other G.O.P. candidates then made their own scandal spots. But the strategy flopped in a rural district that Bob Dole easily won in 1996. Incumbent Democrat Bob Etheridge won by 15 percentage points.

Race: Mississippi's fourth district
Issue: African-American turnout

The district is represented by a retiring Democrat-turned-Republican, which has made it a bitter battleground. Democrats picked a conservative, Ronnie Shows, who might easily have lost to the G.O.P.'s Delbert Hosemann, an attorney, but for the fact that blacks turned out in big numbers to express support for Clinton. Shows didn't even have to sweat that much; he won, 53% to 45%.

Race: Colorado's second district
Issue education

Democrats usually edge Republicans here, but it is always close. After nominating conservatives in the past, this time the G.O.P. picked Bob Greenlee, a popular Boulder mayor and zillionaire with a giant campaign fund. Democrat Mark Udall had a giant issue working for him. He said the U.S. should hire 100,000 new teachers. Greenlee scoffed. And lost, 50% to 47%.

Race: Wisconsin's second district
Issue: health-care reform

Even as voters elsewhere crushed gay-marriage proposals, no one in this moderate district much cared that Democrat Tammy Baldwin is a lesbian. And they loved her constant talk about health care. Forget HMOs: Baldwin backed universal care and suggested her opponent, former state insurance commissioner Josephine Musser, would parrot the industry line. The negative ads worked; Musser lost by 6 percentage points.


Cover Date: November 16, 1998

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