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The Search for A New Political Center : Looking to '96, Both Parties Should Seek an Oxymoron

November 06, 1994|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — Elections have a way of changing the political landscape. No matter what happens Tuesday, the old conventional wisdom about 1996 will be dead. The 1996 players will be sifting through the returns to find new wisdom.

The biggest player is, of course, President Bill Clinton. On Nov. 9, Clinton will either be the Comeback Kid or the Angel of Doom. He'll look good if the Democrats' losses are about average for the President's party in a midterm--three or four Senate seats, 20-25 House seats.

Why would average losses be terrific news for the President? Because the Republicans have set him up for it. They've been fantasizing about a revolution. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole! House Speaker Newt Gingrich! To the barricades!

It could happen. But it's a reach. And if it doesn't happen, Clinton will look like a hero. After all, every Republican is running against him. So every Democratic victory will be a Clinton save. He'll be resurrected in the Democratic Party and a sure bet for renomination in '96.

If the Democrats lose control of the House, however, all bets are off. The party will have lost the power base it has held in Washington for 40 years. The long knives will come out--aimed at Clinton.

Democrats will be terrified of running with Clinton at the top of the ticket in '96. If Democrats do poorly in states with large black populations, like New York, Illinois and Georgia, Jesse Jackson will have a ready explanation: Clinton moved too far to the center and never delivered for urban voters and minorities. If Democrats get wiped out among Southern white voters, moderate Democrats like Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia will have a ready explanation: Clinton moved too far to the left and never kept his pledge to govern as a new Democrat.

Party elders will warn Clinton that if he runs for renomination, primary challenges will materialize and he'll split the Democratic Party. Suppose he runs, anyway. Will he get the nomination? Probably. No incumbent President has ever been denied renomination by his own party, though it almost happened to Gerald R. Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Ford and Carter got renominated, but were fatally wounded for the general election. Clinton would be too.

On the Republican side, two senators have a great deal at stake in seeing the GOP win a Senate majority next week. One is Dole, who would become majority leader. But could Dole then run for President? Not without difficulty. He would assume the majority leadership in January, just in time to start raising money for his presidential campaign.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has an even bigger stake in the Senate outcome. He could take credit for engineering a GOP majority. But he wouldn't have to run it. A perfect platform on which to run for President.

For other Republicans, 1994 will be a test of strength between two rising wings of the GOP. The party's moderate wing would be strengthened by wins for governor in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois and California. Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld is headed for a big reelection victory. And New Hampshire is right next door. But Weld has to figure out how to make himself acceptable to the religious right, which opposes him on abortion and gay rights.

Richard M. Nixon's deathbed political prediction was that Gov. Pete Wilson would get reelected in California and go on to win the GOP presidential nomination. Wilson's reelection now seems likely. But he has to figure out how to make himself acceptable to conservatives, who will not easily forgive him for signing a record tax hike in California.

Another potential candidate has a big stake in the California outcome--Jack Kemp. He's for Wilson and against Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigration initiative that Wilson is running on. Kemp had better hope Wilson wins. If Wilson loses, whatever the outcome on Proposition 187, Republicans will never forgive Kemp for sabotaging a fellow Republican.

Dan Quayle will be looking for a religious-right surge at the polls on Tuesday. He's aiming to become their favorite son. In fact, this election poses several tests of strength for the religious right--especially Oliver L. North's race for senator from Virginia.

Would the election of North be good news for Quayle or any other potential GOP contender? North is not about to share the spotlight with anyone. If he got elected, North would immediately become a national hero to the right. To conservatives, North is red meat. Quayle is thin gruel.

Conservatives' ultimate fantasy is to go to bed Tuesday night knowing that Edward M. Kennedy is out of the Senate, Mario M. Cuomo is out of the Albany statehouse, Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) is out of the speakership, and North is going to Congress.

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