Losing a battle, winning the war

Despite Clinton's victory, America is an increasingly conservative country

Published November 7, 1996 11:46AM (EST)

Michael Pappas embodied all the reasons the Republican Party was going to lose control of Congress. A foe of abortion and gun control, he had won the GOP primary in central New Jersey with just 38 percent in a crowded field. Members of his own party cringed at the prospects of this extremist, this veritable pawn of the Religious Right, running against a centrist Democrat in a district with the usual suburban taste for moderation.

Pappas won, by three percentage points, in a district and a state that Bill Clinton carried by double digits.

Therein lies the importance of Tuesday's election. In a year when reasons abounded for voters to strip Republicans of their congressional power, disaster never struck. Despite Clinton's eight-million-vote margin, despite the House freshmen's fanaticism in closing the government twice in the last year, despite 75,000 advertisements in Congressional races around the country attacking Speaker Newt Gingrich, despite $35 million in campaign contributions to Democrats from the revived AFL-CIO — despite all of that, the Republican Party actually added two seats to their Senate majority, and retained a workable, if smaller, majority in the House.

Why? Because America, despite re-electing a Democrat to the White House for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, remains an increasingly conservative country. Despite the right's excesses, the deep unpopularity of Newt Gingrich and a presidential millstone named Bob Dole around its neck, the electorate gave the Republicans only a mild rebuke on Tuesday. And while the Democrats did recover some ground in the House, the overarching political trends make for a tough road back to majority status.

America has been moving to the right since Barry Goldwater pried much of the South and parts of the ethnic Northeast and Midwest from the New Deal coalition in 1964. The backlash against the GOP after Watergate reversed the flow only briefly. Ronald Reagan, once depicted as too extreme to be elected, has lately been described by former Johnson and Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin as a moderate. The 1994 mid-term election was not, as commonly portrayed, a revolt against incumbency, because few incumbent Republicans lost; it was a revolt against the liberal orthodoxy of Bill Clinton's first two years in office.

Clinton finessed history in both his presidential races by appropriating traditionally Republican stands on welfare, tax relief, and law and order. It is true that the president captured a majority of the female vote, in particular suburban women (the so-called "soccer moms"), by taking carefully-selected stands in the activist liberal tradition — vowing to protect Medicare, seeking to regulate tobacco as an addictive drug. Yet the architect of those stands, Dick Morris, also warned Clinton he would lose if he did not sign the Republican welfare-reform bill. And despite his adroit straddling of left and right, Clinton still failed to attain the 50 percent majority he coveted.

The nation's real ideological divisions were reflected more clearly in individual House and Senate campaigns. In some ways, the contest for Congress could be seen as a showdown between the AFL-CIO and the Christian Coalition, each representing the activist wing of its party. Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed may have overstated the case in claiming victory for the Christian Coalition, but exit polls showed quite simply why an either/or choice worked to the Republicans' advantage: Far more people identified themselves as conservatives than as liberals. Moreover, even in a presidential year, with voting turnout declining as the contested offices go from national to statewide to local, grassroots efforts of groups like the Christian Coalition weigh more heavily.

This disparity between the presidential vote and what in boxing is called the undercard also explains why Clinton won much of the suburban vote, but the Democrats didn't. Nearly 50 years ago, the conservative senator Robert Taft prophesied that the urban-oriented Democratic Party would not succeed until it understood the importance of suburbia. Since then, the suburban share of the presidential vote has steadily increased, surpassing the 50 percent mark in 1992. One of Bob Dole's drawbacks was his inability, as a son of the small-town Great Plains, to convincingly speak to the suburban experience. Congressional Republicans, many of whom spring from the suburbs, and particularly in the new South had no such difficulty.

Having acknowledged that, congressional Republicans would be unwise to interpret Tuesday's results as a mandate to kowtow to the National Rifle Association, indulge the lunacy of the militia movement, and shout "Shut it down!" about the government as if they were gangsta rappers ranting about Korean groceries in the ghetto. Michael Pappas never disavowed his social conservatism, but he did downplay it in favor of the low-taxes, less-government gospel espoused by New Jersey's popular governor. Other pro-gun, anti-abortion candidates, like Woody Jenkins in Louisiana and Guy Millner in Georgia, failed to take Senate seats even in the Republican stronghold of the South.

And all is not lost for the Democrats. They retook several state legislatures, in California and Michigan, for example, and they may yet find longer-term salvation in the millions of immigrant voters Republicans are self-destructively alienating with the nativist rhetoric heard in debates about welfare, immigration and even "foreign money."

Still, Republicans can take more heart from comparisons with FDR than can Clinton and the Democrats. In the 1938 mid-term election, just two years after FDR had won the greatest of his landslides, the Democratic Party lost 89 seats in Congress. Voters were punishing the president for overreaching his mandate — specifically by trying to pack the Supreme Court with pro-New Deal judges. The resulting Congress, emboldened by Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats, refused to enact even modest New Deal legislation. In 1938, the voters seized the ideological pendulum, saying "no farther to the left," and there the pendulum of New Deal liberalism remained for decades. In 1996, voters appear to have said "no further to the right." But it's the conservative agenda that is likely to remain in place now.

Quote of the day

Don't spare the rod

"In our therapeutic society, we've paralyzed parents into believing that any kind of punishment will
indelibly mark a child for the worse ... adults have lost confidence that they have a right to subject a child to the normal consequences of their behavior."

— William Kilpatrick, a Boston College education professor and
author of "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong" (From "When Parents Decide To Take Charge
Again," in Thursday's New York Times)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

MORE FROM Samuel G. Freedman

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