Referendum - on What?

Get ready for more scandal and congressional inaction

If you listen to the chatter emanating from the 24-hour news-analysis machine, we are headed toward a date with destiny tomorrow night. We're set for one of those all-important referendum elections.

Depending on who you listen to, the voters will finally tell President Clinton he's no longer wanted by strengthening the GOP majority; or they will finally tell the Republican Congress it has wasted too much time on tawdry silliness and weaken its grip.

But if you're planning to stay home tomorrow night to watch some history in the making, you might want to think again. Because the truth is that election night 1998 is likely to hold all the suspense of the 1998 World Series.

Democrats may lose some seats - the president's party usually does in an off-year election - but it won't be enough to alter the dynamics of Capitol Hill.

Come January, Washington won't suddenly lose interest in interns and phone sex. And that's bad news for all of us, because it means two more years of a whole lot of nothing.

The GOP's hopes of making the election a referendum on Mr. Clinton vanished the day party leaders overplayed their hand and released his videotaped testimony.

The tape did the impossible. It made voters sympathize with the president - and the impeachment/resignation momentum that had been building imploded.

And Democrats, who believe Tuesday will be a referendum on how Republicans handled the impeachment issue, are mistakenly equating voter disgust with one side for support of the other. The Middle East peace summit may have reminded voters that Clinton can be effective, but that doesn't mean they have to like him.

In the end, all this means 1998 is going to be a good year for incumbents.

There may be disgust for all those involved with "interngate," but it is a nice, round, uniform disgust. And as bad as disgust with one's political leaders can be, a healthy economy can take a lot of the pain away.

The Dow looks as though it has overcome its brief unsteady steps brought on by the Asian financial crisis. And unemployment and inflation remain ridiculously low. With so little to worry about, the thinking goes, why not send the incumbents back? They may be a do-nothing Congress, but maybe nothing needs to be done.

And there's the rub. It is precisely now, when times are good, that we should be preparing for the bad times that will inevitably follow sometime down the road. But the GOP Congress, which once had big, if sometimes poorly thought-out, plans is afraid to lead in the wake of the hits it took over the government shutdown. And the president isn't able, particularly when the opposition controls the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Get ready for two more years of stasis, beginning with one year of Clue-like congressional hearings - "President Clinton in the study with 'Leaves of Grass' " - and concluding with a second year of posturing for the 2000 election.

Meanwhile, the serious structural problems we could be addressing to help us grow in the long term will be left untouched. What kinds of problems?

Reports from some states suggest welfare reform is not going as smoothly as thought. Poorly designed systems are proving unable to help many of those looking for work. Right now those people are finding work without help because of the strong economy. But when a recession eventually hits, we may have a huge problem on our hands.

Many of our schools are physically crumbling. Built in the first half of the century, they have suffered 50 years or more of abuse and neglect. Fixing them, or building new facilities will require a massive one-time expenditure that many municipalities and states may not be able to afford without assistance.

Then, of course, there is the looming Social Security shortfall that everyone in Washington says they want to fix, but no one wants to touch.

Considering how little attention these issues are getting, it's safe to say that the early returns on the big Tuesday referendum are already in.

Deadlock's the winner. We're the losers.

It's going to be a long two years.

* Dante Chinni, a Washington-based freelance journalist, is a contributor to The New Republic and The Economist magazines.

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