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Election '98: Congressional Physics

November 5, 1998

Mark J. Pelavin
Associate Director,
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism


Although some are suggesting that the 1998 election results do nothing more than prove the accuracy of some of our favorite political truisms - "all politics are local," "it's the economy, stupid," "money talks" - it is becoming clear that something significant happened on November 3rd. On the surface, the election was a predictable reaffirmation of the status quo -- the partisan breakdown in the Senate remains exactly the same, the Democrats pick up five seats in the House, very few incumbents lose - but the national trend is an unmistakable vote of confidence for the political center.

In state after state, the most conservative candidates went down to defeat. The loss of two southern Governors -Fob James of Alabama (who threatened to call out the National Guard to "protect" the ten commandments in a courtroom) and David Beasley of South Carolina -as well as the failure of hard-right Senate challengers in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Washington, and the upset defeat of North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth, all point to the increasing public disaffection with strident conservatism. Contrast those failures with the success of moderate Republicans like the Bush brothers: Jeb Bush (the new governor of Florida) and George W. Bush (the easily-reelected governor of Texas) -- both of whom won significant victories, and did so with broad-based support and kinder, gentler campaigns.

Interestingly, the candidates most often tagged as "extreme" liberals - Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin - beat back serious challenges. (Senator Carol Mosley-Braun of Illinois did lose her seat; but that race focused on ethical lapses by Mosley-Braun, not on ideology.)

One of the biggest winners was not on the ballot anywhere. President Clinton's personal problems may have been on voter's minds, but GOP attempts to use them as a club with which to beat Democrats backfired. Post-election polls showed that 59% of voters said Clinton was not a factor in their vote, 57% think that Congress should drop the impeachment hearings, and 61% disapprove of the way Congress is handling the Clinton/Lewinsky affair.

In addition, the candidates who most strongly supported the White House and received strong backing from the White House - newly elected Senator Chuck Schumer in New York and Senator Barbara Boxer in California - won difficult races. Talk of impeachment is all but dead in Washington, and it is likely that the House of Representatives will move quickly to put the issue behind them, probably with some type of "censure" resolution.

The strong showing by moderates will inevitably shape the political landscape of the upcoming 106th Congress. The balance of power in the outgoing 105th Congress was held by a loose group of two dozen or so moderate Republicans, sometimes joined by the so-called "Blue Dog Democrats." Even before the election, the House leadership was under attack for not being "right" enough, and was accused of compromising on critical issues. Ironically, the more conservative members of the House Republican caucus may well run one of their own- (perhaps Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK)) - for leadership positions against Speaker Newt Gingrich or Majority Leader Dick Army. This clash within the GOP - with the leadership caught between the need to move to the center to gain popular support and those on the Right who feel that the party must sharpen a conservative edge to distinguish itself from the Democrats - will be the key battle when the 106th Congress reports for duty in January.

That battle portends more legislative stalemate, more gridlock, and less progress on issues of concern to the Reform Movement. The laws of physics apply on Capital Hill, as elsewhere, and they teach that two of the most powerful, alas, energies in nature are inertia and centrifugal force. Overcoming those forces - getting the legislative ball rolling on issues of concern and holding enough members in the political center to build a winning coalition - will be our central challenge in the days and weeks ahead.

 

 



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