Election's Clear Message, Unclear Results

THE 1990 campaign and its ballot conclusions Nov. 6 provided dramatic evidence of voter dissatisfaction and, what's more, made clear its source. At the same time, they reminded us again of the properties of the contemporary parties and elections system, whose end product is a persisting pattern of ``split-level,'' disconnected results. The election was dominated by a single issue or set of concerns - the public's growing sense that government taxes too much and spends unwisely. This judgment in effect renewed the ``tax revolt'' of the late 1970s, which had culminated in Ronald Reagan's election. The protest waned in the 1980s, but rose again at decade's end in response to tax hikes at the state and local levels, and economic unease accompanying the current slowdown. The final spur came from the drawn-out budget negotiations between Bush and the Congress, which ultimately raised a number of federal taxes.

As highly visible political executives on the front line, governors who had backed tax hikes were 1990's big losers. Incumbents in both parties suffered. Republican losses in Florida, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island owed much to the tax issue, as did Democratic defeats in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

Polling over the past year had made clear that voters, for all their frustration, weren't about to lash out blindly. Their call wasn't to chop away at government programs, only to exercise prudent restraint. It isn't surprising, then, that voters said no to a number of ballot measures, including the tax limitation proposition in Massachusetts, that they thought would really slash services. At the same time, they also rejected propositions all across the country which would have increased taxes, even for such popular ends as fighting crime, curbing drug use, or extending environmental protections.

Much has been made of the plunge in George Bush's approval ratings during October, as he completed his break with ``no new taxes'' by advocating a host of new ones. What's more, he came to be seen as most upset about raising levies on the rich. Congressional Democrats supposedly refurbished their image by championing tax ``fairness.''

In fact, Congress, whose institutional standing had been low all along, fell sharply in public esteem in the wake of its budget accord. A CBS News/New York Times survey of mid-August had found 40 percent approving Congress's performance, 44 percent disapproving. But in the same organizations' poll of Oct. 28-31, support had plummeted to 23 percent, while an all-time high of 69 percent disapproved. Just 12 percent thought that ``most members of Congress have done a good enough job to deserve re-election.

Most of the results I've noted, taken individually, could be attributed to something other than a tax protest. For example, in October Congress not only approved a big tax hike but thrashed around in doing so. But together the results are powerful evidence that not only were voters dissatisfied and seeking change, but that concern over taxing and spending levels were the core of their unease.

For all the dissatisfaction, most congressional incumbents in both parties won re-election. In the House of Representatives, where incumbency advantages have been so controlling in recent years, only 15 officeholders - six Democrats and nine Republicans - were beaten, and many of them had been implicated in savings and loan debacles or tainted by personal scandal. Margins of victory were down substantially in 1990. In 1988, winners were held under 60 percent in just 65 of the 435 districts; 1990's winners got less than 60 percent in 121 races.

The other side of this coin, though, is that, even with dissatisfaction running high and governors being defeated, 314 congressional victors, mostly incumbents, got 60 percent or more of the vote, 161 more than 70 percent.

But most voters ``like'' their representatives only in the sense that they have heard more positive things about them than about their challengers. Most haven't absorbed enough negative information about incumbents to reject them in favor of unknown challengers. Even amidst the real voter discontent that surrounded the 1990 campaign, House voting remained sufficiently disconnected from policy concerns to permit most members to gain re-election.

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