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Volatility Replaces Two-Party Order

November 13, 1994|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the editor and publisher of American Political Report. His newest book is "Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics" (Little Brown)

WASHINGTON — The bad news for the Democrats is that the Republican seizure of Congress, for the first time in 40 years, is also the century's biggest repudiation of a new President in his first midterm elections. Historically, at least, President Bill Clinton has been shamed. And the Democrats' longstanding control of the House of Representatives has been shattered.

The bad news for the Republicans is that their big triumph comes at a volatile, angry time in which the electorate is at your throat just 12 to 18 months after they were at your feet. Public disdain for Washington and the Clinton Administration has put the GOP in a position where it has to deliver--and probably won't be able to. The era of long cycles of party predominance is over.

Contemporary U.S. politics involves an ever shorter affection span before voters turn sour. George Bush was the first victim. Then Clinton crashed even faster. He has now led congressional Democrats to the worst blood bath for a party in its first midterms since 1922--when the newly elected GOP of the Harding Administration lost eight seats in the Senate and 76 in the House. But Clinton did even worse--because unlike Warren G. Harding he cost his party majorities in both houses.

Not only will voters give the new GOP Congress just 12 months or so to prove itself--but the GOP's precedents are poor. Until now, the GOP had not won both the Senate and House against a Democratic President since 1946--and the 80th Congress elected in 1946 was so untested and extreme that Democratic President Harry S. Truman fought it with vetoes and came out a surprise winner. In 1948, Truman not only got reelected, he knocked Republicans out of control of both houses of Congress.

Voter volatility also represents a major problem for the GOP. Stocks that are too volatile, and therefore too risky, are said to have a high "beta factor." Arguably, a similar pattern is at the center of the GOP's success Tuesday, with its precarious base in relatively low turnout and in unprecedented disillusionment with the two-party system. This is a weak framework to build a new politics on.

Cautious strategists on both sides favor the Democratic President and the Republican Congress pursuing a mutual strategy of conciliation and compromise. But this seems implausible. Many of the new GOP House members are conservative stalwarts, little disposed to compromise--though tactics will oblige both sides to talk about bipartisanship for six months to establish their bona fides for the coming combat.

In fact, there might no longer be a "vital center," as historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. put it 50 years ago. Instead, we have an "Interest-Group Center," where the GOP, funded by Washington-based lobbies and special interests, overlaps with Democrats who get contributions from the same sources.

Arguably, this interest-group structure is now more important than the party structures. Critics like Jesse Jackson assert "interest-group centrism" now dominates a Democratic Party that used to respond to ordinary-voter constituencies and is one reason for the party's weakness. Liberals are likely to level similar charges if Clinton does attempt a broad compromise toward Republican positions. Truman in '48 was better off fighting, they will say, and Clinton would be, too. By next spring, the swords should be coming out more or less with the cherry blossoms.

Neither party, moreover, has come to grips with the essence of the 1992 Perot vote, which was threefold: 1) an outsider antipathy to Washington and its interests; 2) a sense that middle America was losing the American Dream, and 3) a desire to re-empower ordinary voters through electronic democracy.

Clinton, whose remarks on Wednesday revealed more understanding of popular resentment of Washington, has missed his opportunity. But though Perot backers voted Republican on Nov. 8, the GOP commitment may not be much greater.

True, winning GOP congressional candidates mostly backed term limits and the new GOP governors-elect of New York and Pennsylvania supported establishing local initiative procedures, but the new GOP congressional majorities will face far greater challenges in enacting serious campaign-finance reform or trying to regulate lobbying. The Republicans are at least as closely tied to special interests as the Democrats, and pseudo-reform is more likely than the real thing.

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