The pols live it up

Posted: Nov 11, 2002 12:00 AM
Frank Lautenberg said he was really astonished that so few people had voted Democratic. Others' astonishment is of a different order -- why did so many people in New Jersey vote for Mr. Lautenberg?

But these are curiosities, in a scene absolutely dominated by the personal success of George W. Bush, who has scored what goes by the name of a historical upset, it being the convention for midterm elections to express a little second-thinking about the party of the presidential incumbent.

The new senator from New Jersey was quoted as saying that now Mr. Bush has to produce. We need leadership, he says, in the matter of foreign and domestic policy. Tony Dolan, sometime speechwriter for President Reagan, suggests that the need for leadership is, to be sure, a need for George W. Bush to spread his wings even further, but a need also for the Democrats to acknowledge what he calls their "ghettoization" of their party. He means that the Democrats' inventory of concerns is now so closely bounded by a concern for lobbies, the Dems might cease to attract universal attention.

Already it is suggested that Rep. Richard Gephardt should step down as minority leader. And if you can believe it, Gary Hart, of days gone by, has suggested that he step up, from the discredited presidential candidate of 1988, to a born-again candidate for 2004. Donna Rice, the consort who tripped up his campaign in '88, has now become a resolutely born-again crusader against pornography.

Mr. Hart said on Election Day that the quarrel he had in 1988 was with the press, not with the people. He means that the press ought not to have pursued his night life, and means also, one gathers, that the American people no longer care about candidates' night lives, as Bill Clinton could affirm.

But, Sen. Lautenberg says, President Bush has to prove himself because the economy is in a terrible mess. He does not adduce from any of the public-policy positions taken by the Democratic leadership what it is that ought to be done. The Democrats have never been strong on this point. Their strength is in redistribution. One class of Americans produce the goods, the Democrats serving as arbiters on who should have the income from that production.

Tom Daschle, the outgoing Senate majority leader, has joined Mr. Lautenberg in declaring that the economy is a mess, but once again, doesn't say what it is that needs to be done, other than to give more money to people who don't have it. The negative formulation of that is even more attractive: It is to take money away from those who have it. There is special satisfaction to be got from doing that, as Marie Antoinette learned.

But these are stray observations of the morning after. The figures are not absolutely in on whether more people actually voted Republican than Democatic, so we don't know whether the special services of a Katherine Harris will be needed -- she solved that problem in Florida two years ago when the Democrats managed, on a sleepy day, to outnumber the Republicans. But this time, in edgy contests, the Republican vote was pretty assertively loyal.

Florida had loomed as the great battleground between the two parties. Jeb Bush was the underdog as the manifestly younger brother of the president. And his opponent threatened to undo all the initiatives Gov. Bush had taken to attempt to do something about education, beyond merely limiting class size. Everybody who was anybody in politics descended on that scene and wooed the electorate, who very early on in the evening backed Bush.

One morning television interviewer asked the governor whether his daughter's misbegotten drug habits had injured him, and the thought passed that perhaps there was a backlash vote, people who thought the publicity given to the daughter's drug problem merited a backlash, to the effect that her young misfortunes were not to be taken as the fault of Gov. Jeb.

And there seemed to be a backlash in Minnesota, where the majority of the voters did not interpret the tragic death of Paul Wellstone as commanding them to endorse the cause of socialism and isolationism. In California, Republican candidate William Simon made an extraordinary showing in a Democratic state in which the incumbent governor spent more than $50 million to win by a measly five points.

But big spending didn't always pay off. In New York, gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano spent his $50 million, proving absolutely nothing. A great relief is experienced by thousands of analysts whose fax machines were clogged with Golisano matter 15 times a day for two months, which reminds us that the end of campaigns produces a wonderful calm, even if only for a little while, especially enjoyable when the sense is that the storm has gone well out to sea.