Aim for the center

Posted: Nov 15, 2002 12:00 AM
There is a bipartisan tendency in America to over-interpret elections. We are constantly dubbing things "historic," and "unprecedented," when they are considerably less than that. We're in the process of over-interpreting the midterm elections of 2002, and there is danger for Republicans in that. First, consider that election success often precedes governing failure. Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats won the largest victory in American history in 1936, the year Roosevelt proclaimed that his generation had a "rendezvous with destiny," but by 1938, recession and the "court-packing" plan had undercut the landslide. Lyndon Johnson won a "historic" election in 1964 but botched Vietnam so badly that he did not even attempt to get re-elected in 1968. Richard Nixon won an even bigger landslide in 1972, but was forced from office two years later. And in the aftermath of their 1994 triumph, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans saw their advantage slip away as the government shutdown played into the Democrats' hands. Bill Clinton over-interpreted his 1992 victory. It wasn't that his margin was large -- in fact, he was only the plurality winner in a three-way race -- but his election represented the first presidency for a Democrat since 1976, and pent-up liberal demand was strong. They pressed their advantage with early measures like gays in the military and universal health care only to discover in 1994 that the electorate wasn't buying all of that. The 1994 results were a message to Clinton: We voted for a focus on the economy, not for the whole liberal agenda. And speaking of pent-up demand, when Republicans took control of the Congress in 1994, they acted as if the presidency had ceased to exist (Clinton held a press conference to deny that he was "irrelevant") and promised a thorough overhaul of the entire government. Once again, the centrist electorate sent a message: not so fast. As many analysts have pointed out, this election, while decisive, was no landslide. Shifts of a just a few hundred thousand votes in four states would have kept the Senate in Democratic hands. Governorships are pretty evenly divided, and Republicans control 21 state legislatures to the Democrats' 17 -- a comfortable margin but not a blowout. Obituaries for the Democratic Party are (some might say unfortunately) premature. But if the Democrats are not dead, they are a minority now. It's time for the Republicans to really, really internalize this reality and stop acting as if they're just playing with the gavel until daddy gets back in the chair. Part of what this should mean for the Republicans is patience. In 1994, they were overeager to achieve policy ends they feared they might not get a second crack at. Now, they can relax. They've held the majority in the House of Representatives for nearly a decade, and barring some terrific blunder, the voters are likely to give them time. This year's electorate was sending a message about security -- be serious. Fight the war on terror just as the president wishes it to be fought. Don't side with union members or pettifogging ACLU types when the security of the nation is at stake. There is much ground to cover on this score alone. We have not yet begun to get serious about immigration reform, tracking of visitors, monitoring of foreign students, and sensible ethnic profiling at airports and other highly vulnerable targets. Each of these reforms will meet with energetic, possibly even splenetic, liberal opposition. With the mandate of this election, Republicans should prevail. But it would be a mistake for Republicans to believe that their entire agenda was ratified on Nov. 5. By all means, make the case for school choice, partial privatization of Social Security, a ban on human cloning and tax reform. But do so with the knowledge that the electorate remains to be convinced on these matters. Sept. 11 tilted the nation to the right because people trust the Republicans to take national security seriously. Republicans must take care to fulfill the voter's wishes on security. But they must be cautious about assuming too much on other matters.