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The Nation | POLITICS

An Election About Nothing

October 25, 1998|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — This is supposed to be the Great Impeachment Election, a showdown of monumental historical importance. But to voters, it's the "Seinfeld" election--an election about nothing.

In fact, nothing about this political year makes sense. President Bill Clinton is facing impeachment. Voters say they are ashamed to have him as their president. Nonetheless, his job-approval ratings are soaring.

The 1997-98 Congress has been one of the least productive ever. No tobacco bill. No tax cut. No campaign-finance reform. No HMO reform. No Social Security reform. Just impeachment and a thrown-together budget that goes back to the worst days of politics as usual.

The people know it. Polls show broad agreement that this Congress has accomplished less than most. Nonetheless, record numbers of voters say their own member of Congress--indeed, most members--deserve to be reelected.

The stock market is on a roller-coaster ride. Forecasters warn of a worldwide recession. Nonetheless, almost 80% of Americans believe things are going well in the United States, the highest figure in 25 years.

Pundits used to worry about the angry voter. Now, they worry about the imperturbable voter. Republicans can't get Americans angry at a disgraced president. Democrats can't get them angry at a do-nothing Congress. The stock market doesn't seem to make people anxious about their diminishing fortunes. Remember Dean Wormer's warning in "Animal House"? "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life."

So, what's going to happen on Nov. 3? Nothing. At least, not much. Democrats once talked boldly about regaining control of the House. Ain't gonna happen. Republicans once talked boldly about picking up 30 new House seats. Ain't gonna happen. Most likely, we'll see GOP gains in the range of five to 10 House seats. A nothing result.

Republicans also talked boldly about picking up five new Senate seats. That would give the GOP 60 senators, enough to cut off filibusters and control the debate. Could it happen? Right now, Republicans seem poised to win three Democratic Senate seats (Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky), while it looks as if the GOP will lose three (Indiana, North Carolina and New York). After that, five Democratic-held seats are in some jeopardy (California, Nevada, Washington, Wisconsin and South Carolina). It's not likely that Republicans will win all five. More likely: a GOP gain of two or three.

If so, Democrats will celebrate and claim they beat the "six-year itch." That's the pattern after a party has held the White House for six years, and it suffers severe losses in the midterm, as the GOP did in 1958 and 1974 and Democrats did in 1966. White House spinners are already arguing that if Democrats lose fewer than 34 House seats, the average for a sixth-year midterm, it will be a grand victory for Clinton. And a mandate to stop the impeachment proceedings.

But the fact is, Democrats are unlikely to suffer a severe setback for a simple reason: They're already in bad shape. Democrats have not prospered under Clinton. Just the opposite. Their worst nightmare came true. They lost control of Congress, including the party's power-base in the House that sustained it for 40 years. There won't be a "six-year itch" because it already happened--in 1994.

Even modest losses would put the Democrats in one of their weakest positions in history. They could dip below 200 House seats (they have 206 now). That hasn't happened since 1948. Democrats will probably end up with fewer than 45 Senate seats. That hasn't happened since 1930. GOP governors already outnumber Democrats by nearly two to one. Next month, even more states are likely to end up under GOP control. That's hardly a vote of confidence in the president's party.

Republicans are just as likely to misread the outcome. A mandate to impeach? Hardly. It's really a vote of confidence in the status quo. What do happy voters do? They reelect everybody. This year, that means a whole lot of Republicans.

Especially governors. Look at Texas. Gov. George W. Bush is leading by 46 points. His opponent is getting barely a quarter of the vote. Will the last Democrat in Texas please turn out the lights?

OK, Texas is a conservative Southern state. So how about Michigan, land of auto workers, unions and Motown? Democratic bastion? Not anymore. Republican Gov. John Engler leads by 32 points.

Check out New York, the homeland of liberalism and birthplace of the New Deal. GOP Gov. George E. Pataki, the giant killer who finished off Mario M. Cuomo four years ago, is leading by better than two to one. His Democratic opponent, New York City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, has 21% in the latest poll. A Democrat in New York getting 21%? Oy vay is mir.

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