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THE REAL LOSERS : Deciphering The Election : Bush: Can he be mean and kind in '92?

November 11, 1990|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

The 1990 election was a warning. The "ins" are in trouble. That could be a problem for George Bush. As President of the United States, he is the nation's ultimate "in."

Republicans, of course, don't see things that way. They think they got through the 1990 election relatively unscathed. After all, if you look at the election in partisan terms, it was a wash. The Democrats ended up gaining only one Senate seat and nine (out of 435) in the House. When all the shouting was over, neither party came out ahead in the elections for governor. No big deal.

Except that you shouldn't look at the 1990 election in partisan terms. The message from the voters this year was thoroughly nonpartisan: You're all a bunch of goof-ups, and we're getting sick and tired of it. You stand warned.

At least members of Congress were lucky. They got by with a warning. Only one incumbent senator and 15 incumbent House members were defeated on Tuesday. But those who got reelected found they were winning with sharply diminished majorities. "If congressional incumbents read their reelections as a vote for the status quo, they'll be sadly mistaken," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "This was a year when it wouldn't have taken much to tip the scales."

Governors weren't so lucky. They got it in the neck. A quarter of the incumbent governors running for reelection were defeated. In 14 out of the 36 states with elections for governor, the party in power was thrown out. As it happens, the Democrats were ousted in seven states and the Republicans lost the other seven. So in partisan terms, it was a draw. But that doesn't mean nothing happened.

Governors seemed to pay the price for a bad economy. In states that threw the governing party out of office, an average of two-thirds of the voters said their state's economy was in bad shape.

Why did the voters take it out on governors and let members of Congress off with a warning? Apparently because they believe governors run things. All legislators do is make speeches and vote.

Why is this bad news for Bush? For two reasons. More than three-quarters of the voters across the country said the national economy was in bad shape. And Bush is not the nation's legislator. He is the nation's governor.

There was a big market for outsiders in this year's election. Independents got elected governor in Connecticut and Alaska. A Socialist got elected to Congress from Vermont, that citadel of the oppressed industrial proletariat. The loony left elected a new senator from Minnesota. The loony right reelected Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Connecticut voters sent a staunchly conservative black Republican to Congress. Insiders like House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) saw their victory margins dramatically shaved.

Of course, the voters had to draw the line somewhere. They drew it in Texas and Massachusetts--where gubernatorial candidates Clayton Williams, a Republican, and John Silber, a Democrat, proved that if you try hard enough, you can talk yourself out of a victory. Texans decided they didn't want to be governed by Wild Bill Hickok, and Massachusetts voters couldn't bring themselves to elect Capt. Queeg.

To underscore their disgust with insiders, the voters passed initiatives setting term limits everywhere they were on the ballot, including California. In a desperate move to dislodge entrenched Democratic incumbents, Republicans are all set to lead a nationwide crusade for term limits. But this is not necessarily good news for Bush. As someone who has held virtually every top job in Washington, Bush is the Chief Insider in U.S. politics.

Three governors who pledged not to raise taxes and then broke that pledge were defeated on Tuesday. Voters all over the country rejected measures that would have raised taxes, increased spending or added to bond indebtedness. For example, California voters rejected a major environmental initiative, two liquor-tax hikes and 12 of 14 bond issues. New York voters turned down a $1.9-billion environmental bond issue.

The voters sent a clear message on taxes: No. "I got the message," said Gov. James J. Florio of New Jersey, whose unpopular tax program very nearly brought down Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) last week. Florio said his entire legislative program was open to revision. Bush got the message, too. He said on Thursday that he had "serious regrets" about "being forced" to abandon his no-new-taxes pledge, and he promised not to do it again. "You know, sometimes you run into some realities," Bush said. "But I'm girding up my loins to go into battle to beat back the tax attempts that I think are coming."

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