A Pragmatic Election

THE lights are out, the floors swept, and the doors locked at campaign headquarters across the United States.

This week's state and local elections sent messages, but they are pragmatic, not ideological. They should be just as arresting to those Republicans inclined to gloat about the implications of the defeats of Democratic candidates or incumbents as they should be to Democrats inclined to brush the results aside with the old axiom: All politics are local.

The message on taxes: If I can see direct benefits from higher taxes, I'll pay them. In California, voters approved Proposition 172, which retains a 1/2-cent sales tax that was set to expire. The revenue is used for police and firefighters. In Washington State, voters retained higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol, which were raised last year to help pay for the state's health-care plan.

By contrast, Gov. Jim Florio (D) of New Jersey narrowly lost to GOP challenger Christine Todd Whitman, largely because he spearheaded a $2.8 billion tax increase to deal with the state's budget deficit. Taxes were raised to solve a critical problem whose impact on individual voters can be more diffuse. Interestingly, Ms. Whitman's Reaganesque tax-cut plan does not have much credibility among voters or among her own party's leaders in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

The message on tenure: Deal with the problems that most concern us or you're out - and, by the way, we're going to set term limits to give you a deadline. Crime and the economy were leading issues. Governor Florio and New York Mayor Dinkins came up short in voters' eyes. In Virginia, the governorship went to Republican George Allen, largely on the strength of his anti-crime campaign, after 12 years of Democrats in the governor's mansion. Yet in Seattle, Democratic Mayor Norman Rice won reelection by a 2-to-1 margin in a contest where crime was a top issue.

These messages favor no particular party. Florio's defeat, for example, is less a warning about raising taxes per se and more about ensuring that voters get their money's worth.

The most encouraging message from this week's results: While race was a factor, particularly in the New York City vote, race and ethnicity are playing a secondary role for many voters. From Boston and Minneapolis to Seattle, the winner came from a different racial or ethnic background than did the majority of voters.

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