Reflections on the '92 Election

OUR 51st presidential election was a referendum on President Bush and his handling of the economy. By the time the election rolled around, even Mr. Bush had turned on his economic advisers and called for major new - though still vague - economic strategies. But it was too little and too late. Sixty-two percent of the voters signaled it was time for a change, and for them this meant not only a change of economic advisers but of top White House leadership as well.

Bill Clinton won a handsome electoral college victory, and he will doubtless claim that this gives him a decisive mandate for his economic and domestic proposals. But Mr. Clinton won only a small "m" mandate. The election was more of a repudiation of Bush's failed leadership than an explicit embrace of Clinton's platform.

Still, there is a clear mandate to work harder to get the economy moving again and to shift more resources away from the Pentagon and toward public works, education, and health care. Taxes will doubtless go up on the rich and near-rich; so-called "sin taxes" will also surely rise. Clinton's win is also a mandate for moderation, racial tolerance, and social justice.

Democrats won eight out of 12 governor's races. They now control 30 governorships; Republicans hold only 18 and independents two. The Democrats padded their majority in the Senate by one seat to 58 seats and lost 10 seats in the House of Representatives. Did this loss in the House mean that Clinton had no coattails? Not really. Most of the House losses were self-inflicted, tied mainly to bounced checks at the notorious House bank.

Surprisingly, an overwhelming number of incumbents who survived their primary races once again went on to victory in the general election. The much talked about voter revolt and campaign to "clean house" fizzled. Bush apparently became the chief scapegoat among federal incumbents. The advantages of congressional incumbency are still pretty impressive - too impressive in my view. Districts need to be more competitive. Campaign-finance reform is overdue. And incumbency perks, such as the free-mailing privi lege, should be curbed.

I rather like the idea, first suggested by Martin Anderson, that our letters to members of Congress should be free, while their endless stream of thinly disguised campaign literature should cost them (and not the taxpayer).

Term limits won in 14 out of 14 state contests. In most of these states, the limits apply - at least in theory, if not constitutional fact - to terms for members of Congress. How, many people are asking, can voters OK term limits and at the same time return their local incumbents to Congress and state legislatures?

The answer is rather simple, and wholly logical. People favor term limits for legislators in general and as a way to reform the institutions of government. For the time being, however, they want to retain their incumbent, who has probably done a decent enough job of representing their interests. Also, most of our legislative districts are, unfortunately, safe one-party areas where the incumbent is nearly always the candidate of the dominant party.

One of the election's big winners is Ross Perot. He won more votes as an independent or third-party candidate than anyone since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose Progressive in 1912. And he won a lot more votes than polls predicted. Of course he had to pay a considerable sum to do so. Yet more important was the way he rented the "bully pulpit" for the past month or so and talked economics and civics to the American people.

This was one of the most unusual and compelling sideshows in the history of American presidential elections. Much of it was simplistic and at times even goofy (for example, his embrace of the theme song "Crazy"). Yet much of it was also refreshing and had a ring of authenticity. If his goal was to defeat Bush, he has to be exceedingly pleased. If his goal was to force both parties and both major tickets to talk about the economy, he has to be reasonably pleased. If his goal was to rally a movement to mak e elected officials more accountable and more aware of voter anger, he again has reason to be pleased. And if his goal was merely to have a lot of fun, show off his attractive family, and enjoy a major ego trip - then, again, he plainly got his money's worth.

This election is also a victory for the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), formed back in 1985. Several Southern governors, US senators, and their friends set out to reposition the Democratic Party closer to the center. They were responding to Ronald Reagan's decisive 1980 and 1984 electoral landslides, and they knew the old Roosevelt coalition was fraying.

These DLC Democrats - Bill Clinton and Al Gore were two of the ringleaders - were in effect trying to "deMcGovernize" the Democratic Party. Centrist, more moderate policy positions were key to their efforts - most notably, a more internationalist and pro-defense national-security stance. But the creation of "Super Tuesday" primaries aimed at promoting a candidate from the South was also part of their strategy.

Mr. Gore is another victor in Tuesday's election. If there had been a separate election for vice president, polls show, Gore would have won a landslide victory over Dan Quayle and Jim Stockdale (one poll had it 62 percent to 28 percent to 7 percent a week or so ago). Gore helped consolidate support in the South, he appealed to young people and environmentalists, and he and his telegenic family helped diffuse the family values strategy that Republicans tried in vain to substitute for economic issues.

Critics sometimes say that elections are rarely America's finest hour. By this they mean that our national elections are usually messy, negative, and sometimes insulting, not to mention being far too long. There is, of course, some truth to these complaints.

But now that our 51st presidential election is over, it is time to say it was actually a good election. Democracy is not supposed to be a tidy, efficient, noncompetitive event. On the contrary, we want competition, choices, and hard-fought debates about issues and character and trust and programs.

We got all this in the 1992 elections. We had three good candidates, and anyone who listened carefully heard plenty about the problems facing this country and about the leadership and approaches needed to turn things around. It got mean-spirited at times, but the American public knows when to tune out the nonsense. Some 101 million people, including a record number of new voters, voted. Bush and Mr. Perot were gracious in defeat, and the country can now turn to the exacting economic challenges ahead.

President-elect Clinton ran an impressive campaign. As Dan Quayle implied on Nov. 3, perhaps this is an indication of equally impressive leadership in the White House. We can only hope so, even if we know that what it takes to get there is not exactly the same as what is required once one actually is president.

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