Better Management, Not War

THE period between election day in America, early November, and the New Year, offers a short interregnum for reflecting on where the democracy is going. Let's hope the quiet is not interrupted by war. An offensive war over Arabian oil would not suit any US national interest. President Bush is doubling the US arms contingent in the region, either to bluff Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or, worse, to blast him out. Bluff may not work if Saddam thinks his effective career as leader in Iraq would not survive a loss of face. That leaves face-saving negotiation, or an offensive war.

Mr. Bush should not let himself be pressured by time. Uncertainty can help him confront the irrational but calculating Saddam. The initiative is not now Saddam's, as many are saying. The US can attack Iraq, hold to its original stance of protecting Saudi Arabia, or pull out. The decision is Bush's, not Saddam's.

American citizens by a two-to-one margin think the US is headed in the wrong direction. That may not mean anything more than that they see trouble - and chiefly economic trouble - ahead.

Pre-election accounts reported that voters were ``angry.'' I would not, however, describe as angry any of the hundreds of persons I know who voted in the election. Neither were they desperate. The election took place amidst strong general support for the American political system. This must be emphasized. Mr. Bush could not be sending a half million troops to a desert half way around the world without a substantial reservoir of agreement about America's world role and support for the executive-in-chief.

Voters did, however, want better performance from their elected officials. Overall they voted responsibly, for change. Where change occurred in statewide offices (Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Texas) or where it almost occurred (New Jersey, California), was in ``swing'' states. Presidential politics is keyed to winning these states. They are in certain ways microcosms of the nation. Illinois, for example, has a Yankee-derived north and an Appalachia-derived south. So does Ohio. New Jersey has become a vast suburb state. Florida has an East-coast settled by New Yorkers and a Gulf coast settled by midwesterners. In this election, the swing states swung.

The Massachusetts governor's election was for a seat to be vacated by Michael Dukakis, the failed presidential candidate. It was won by William Weld, a George Bush Republican. Democrat John Silber, more a Texan in his caustic style than a temperate New England type, lost. This says nothing about the nation as a whole. It points in no direction. No more so than does the datum that Harvard graduates won three of the top six state-wide Massachusetts offices. Weld will have to deal with a state deficit that worsens with every estimate, and a political system saturated with inefficiency. It's a marvel that he wanted the job.

With Senator-elect Paul Wellstone's victory over incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz in Minnesota, and Wisconsin Republican Scott Klug's victory over long-time Representative Robert Kastenmeier, voters went for fresher faces for their political board of directors.

If complacency was dangerous for incumbents in 1990, count on even bigger campaign warchests for 1992.

And smaller ambitions. New Jersey Governor Florio read a rebuke of his own state tax hike plan in Sen. Bill Bradley's narrow survival. How to do with less is the political mandate of the '90s.

Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House Republican whip, barely survived a challenge. Gingrich has been the self-appointed GOP trouble-maker in Congress, frustrating Bush's legislative plans. For this he was rebuked by district voters.

The pro-choice position on abortion clearly showed the upper hand over the anti-abortion forces in both parties. The environment lost out to pragmatic concerns.

By region, age, race, and gender, the electorate looked much like it did two, four, or six years ago. Any anticipated swing toward the Republicans is at best on hold.

If politicians reflect on anything before the new political year starts up in 1991, it should be on management performance. At the same time, they must know that a war in the gulf will do no elected official any good.

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