Historic GOP Sweep of Congress Challenges Clinton, Republicans to Seek Bipartisanship
White House gets message of rebuke
WASHINGTON — IN the new realigned, reconstituted, and suddenly much more Republican Washington, President Clinton has to figure out how to provide the change voters so emphatically seek.
As if he wasn't having enough trouble with Congress already, he now faces unified opposition in Congress and a sharply negative review from the voters.
Mr. Clinton's name was not on any ballot Tuesday, but the election results rolled in as a massive rebuke of how the president and his party have governed for the past two years.
The message would not appear to bode well either for Clinton's agenda in the next two years or for his reelection in 1996. Indeed, the results this week may create new potential Republican rivals to Clinton in House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich or California Gov. Pete Wilson. Senior Senate Republican Robert Dole emerges in a stronger presidential position as well.
But the new Republican majorities running the House and Senate are under pressure now, too, from an electorate whose patience has run brutally short.
``If this is a do-nothing Congress,'' says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, whose firm had dozens of clients running at all levels, ``they'll kick us out in two years.''
White House aides immediately began interpreting the election results as a voter demand for change, and ``very, very fast,'' as Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos put it.
``The people sent a message that they don't like the way Washington does business,'' White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said.
That put it mildly. By putting out the Democratic majority that had ruled the House of Representatives for 40 uninterrupted years, by handing the Senate back to the GOP as well as a majority of state governorships for the first time in decades, the voters spoke with withering force.
The best single predictor of a Republican vote Tuesday, according to CNN exit polling, was whether a voter disapproved of Clinton. No other opinion matched so consistently.
Incumbent powerhouses thought beyond a serious challenge 10 days ago, such as House Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski were bounced out by sweeping margins. Yet Republican incumbents held up well.
``I don't think the Democrats can escape the message that voters were unhappy with them,'' says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who worked for the 1992 Clinton campaign.
This is how she reads the voter message to Clinton and the Democrats: ``We told you to get in there and make government work for my family. You were in charge, and you didn't come through.''
George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M who studies public opinion, sees the election as a direct referendum on Bill Clinton. Perhaps unfairly, he says, the Republicans succeeded in ``turning him into a symbol of frustration with Washington and public policy.''
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that voters are telling them in strong terms that they want fundamental change in how Congress operates.
``The message is very simple,'' says Mr. Newhouse. Voters do not want Congress to be merely managed better, rather ``they want to change the status quo.''
Voters have a surprisingly well-developed and sophisticated picture of how Congress works, Ms. Lake says. But their picture is not a pretty one.
Citizens believe special interests and their lobbyists wield more power in Washington than either the president or Congress, Lake says. They want more direct, interactive democracy; they want reform of Congress that flushes out special interests; and they want Washington to get more done.
Two items very high on the Republican agenda will be term limits for members of Congress and making laws passed by Congress - labor and environmental regulations, for example - apply to Congress itself.
The overriding sentiment of voters in this election is that ``politicians don't listen to them, and they're not going to take it anymore,'' Lake says.
The voters certainly have Washington's attention. In defeating Tom Foley, the genial Speaker of the House, the voters of eastern Washington rejected the incomparable power he used to serve their interests in Washington. He was a stout defender of Congress who always pooh-poohed evidence of public discontent with the place. He was also influential in persuading Clinton to join forces with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill rather than pursue reform of Congress.
He is the first sitting Speaker to be defeated since 1860. Tennessee voters made a similar choice when they defeated Sen. Jim Sasser, who had a strong shot at becoming Senate majority leader in a Democratic Senate.
Republicans see a more fundamental choice at work: Americans want a leaner, less-expensive government. The GOP sweep was clearly national, with an impact in every region from Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo's defeat in New York to Gov. Pete Wilson's (R) resurrection in California.
But the deepest change has occurred in the South, where Republicans have now consolidated a realignment that began 30 years ago. The GOP added Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee to the list of Southern states with majority Republican House delegations.
Most striking, Democrats lost the governorship and both Senate seats in Tennessee in one day.
The rise of Southern Republicanism is having a profound effect on the GOP. The Republican Party that Clinton will face across town next year will be more conservative and more concerned with social issues than it is in the current Congress. Newt Gingrich, a Georgian, is far more strident and ideological than the outgoing Republican leader, Bob Michel of Illinois.
The Senate is losing moderate Republicans such as Dave Durenberger of Minnesota and John Danforth of Missouri to far more conservative Rod Grams and John Ashcroft, respectively.
If liberal or moderate Republicans are an increasingly endangered species, so are conservative Democrats, whose conservative constituents are replacing them with Republicans. The White House and Democratic leadership helped make these people vulnerable by pushing them to the left, says Charles Bullock, University of Georgia political scientist. In Southern delegations, notes Dr. Bullock, 120 years of Democratic dominance has now largely melted away.
For the first time, Mr. Newhouse adds, ``we're going to have a farm team in the South.''