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The Search for A New Political Center : Voters' Answer: Ticket-Splitting

November 06, 1994|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

"Dick Riordan and Rudy Giuliani can go start their own party because they clearly don't belong in the GOP," said the spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Huffington, expressing the traditional, paro chial view that Republicans who endorse Democrats have no place in the party. Maybe not. But they have a place in the hearts of most Americans.

Whatever the party leaders think, Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, in endorsing Democratic Sen. Dianne Fein- stein, and New York City Republican Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in backing Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, did exactly what the country wants. So did Nancy Reagan and Teresa Heinz, the widow of former Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz. Even Ross Perot managed to get in the act, endorsing Texas Democrat Ann Richards while encouraging Americans to vote for Republicans for Congress. The most interesting story of 1994 is not the success of any new parties--independent candidates are not faring well--but the establishment of a new center in U.S. politics that rises above party lines.

It's easy for cynics to dismiss the cross-party endorsements in purely political terms: both Giuliani and Riordan need Democratic votes to win elections; Giuliani has a history of bad blood with New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the prime sponsor of Cuomo's Republican opponent, George E. Pataki, and for Perot, Richards' opponent is George W. Bush, son of Perot's most noted antagonist.

But there's more at stake than settling old scores. Whatever their labels, Riordan and Feinstein have far more in common in terms of approach, experience, even ideology than either does with Huffington. Giuliani and Pataki are miles apart in their approaches to policy and politics, even if they both call themselves Republicans. Richards is a Democrat whose appeal has long crossed party lines. And even if Nancy Reagan was getting even for her husband, she was not alone in damning Oliver L. North as a liar; former President George Bush may still believe in putting party above principle--he campaigned for North last week--but John W. Warner, the incumbent Republican from Virginia, has refused to support North, whatever its impact on the potential Republican majority in the Senate. As for Mrs. Heinz, there was nothing for her to gain in endorsing Democratic incumbent Harris Wofford and calling the Republican running for her husband's seat "short on public service and even shorter on accomplishments."

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill used to say that all politics is local. Leave Washington, turn off the television and you won't hear too many people talking about Republicans and Democrats . Indeed, polls show declining identification with the two major parties. The question most people outside Washington seem to ask, when it comes time to vote, is who is willing to deal with the tough realities of life and governing in the '90s. In Los Angeles and New York, Democrats elected--and strongly support--Republican mayors. In Philadelphia, Democratic Mayor Edward G. Rendell is their philosophical cousin. Their approaches to government--fiscally tough and socially progressive--are remarkably similar. They are leaders of the new center.

Dividing loyalties is becoming the rule. In Massachusetts, the two most popular politicians are Republican Gov. William F. Weld and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. In Maine, a Republican is likely to be the next senator, a Democrat the next governor. In New Jersey, Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg is expected to hold on to his seat, notwithstanding the enormous popularity of newly elected Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. For most voters, ticket-splitting no longer seems even a conscious act, much less an inconsistent one.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton promised to cross party lines in choosing his Cabinet and running his government. He didn't. The only Republican of stature brought into the Administration was David R. Gergen, who could have played a key role only for a short time. It is not too late. There is a center in American politics, if not in Washington, composed of Republicans and Democrats trying to make things work, defying party leaders and risking the wrath of hardened regulars and protected insiders. Clinton should be their leader.*

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