Posted on November 14, 1994 in Washington Watch

Two questions remain to be answered after last week’s tidal wave of Republican victories swept the Democrats from power in Washington and state capitals across the United States: Why did it happen? And what will happen now?

As election data is analyzed, it becomes increasingly clear that the Republican agenda set the terms of the national debate this November, and that the American electorate is angry and alienated. In what follows I present some evidence of these conclusions.

Although voter turnout this year was higher than in the last mid-term elections (1990), still only 38.5% of eligible voters went to the polls – meaning that 61.5% did not vote. Democrats received a greater percentage of the national vote than the 43% Clinton received in 1992, but Republicans recorded their highest national total in over 40 years and now control the Senate, House of Representatives, 30 Governorships (out of 50) and are virtually tied with the Democrats for control of state legislatures.

The Republican issues that helped the Republican set the agenda this year played to the fear of U.S. voters – the rampant increase in crime, the decline in values, and the size of government. Democrats spent more time defending Republican charges on these issues than in presenting an agenda of their own.

There were signs everywhere of voter anger. In eight states, voters passed resolutions to set limits on the number of terms that elected officials can serve before being forced to retire. In California, the nation’s most populous state, voters overwhelmingly supported a resolution to stop social service support of illegal immigrants. Twenty Congressmen and Senators who supported a vote last year to ban on assault-style rifles, were defeated by opponents backed by the powerful National Rifle Association. Governors who failed to support the stiffer penalties for criminals were voted out of office. And in general, voters supported candidates who called for less government and low taxes and campaigned on “anti-government” and “anti-Washington” platforms.

The Republican message this November was spelled out in the “Contract with America” which was announced earlier this fall. The “Contract” is supported by over 200 Republicans who will make up the 104th Congress, and they committed that if elected they would vote within 100 days on a package of legislation which would: balance the federal budget, get tough on crime, restore “values”, make term-limits a national law, lower taxes and increase defense spending.

While many voters never heard of the “Contract” itself, , its themes were the general themes of the national Republican campaign, and they obviously captured the national mood.

For many months, the Democrats did not respond to or challenge these Republican themes. Feeling weakened by the President’s low standing in the polls, many Democrats adopted these same Republican themes, which served to reinforce the positions of their Republican opponents. In the end, such tactics only served to prove the maxim “when given a choice between a real Republican and a Democrat acting like a Republican, voters will choose the real Republican every time.” In fact, not a single Republican incumbent Congressman, Senator or Governor lost a bid for reelection this November.

It is interesting to note that those Democrats who did fight back and asserted the alternative Democratic program – that government and its services can be forces for good – were the Democrats who won their races this fall.

But now that the Republicans have won a Congressional majority, they are committed to vote on their “Contract.” The problem, of course, is that it simply will not work. Conservative estimates show that by lowering taxes and increasing defense spending the net cost to the budget will be $500 billion. This is, of course, precisely what happened during the early 1980s in the Reagan years, when the budget deficit grew in four years more than it had grown in the previous 190 years.

Even Republican senator Robert Dole, who will move from being Minority Leader to majority Leader when the senate reconvenes January 4th, has indicated that he will not be able to support many provisions of the “Contract.” And Congressional Republicans have now revised their estimates to say that they only promised to vote on these measures and not necessarily enact them into law.

The fate of the “Contract” is a good example of what will occur when the 104th Congress is seated next January. Republicans will posture and set a national theme for debate – but they will not necessarily move from debate to enacting laws. The Republican goals are actually not centered on new Congressional legislation that will be passed by both Houses and signed into law, but is actually centered in defining the issues that the President will face in such a way that the Republicans have the advantage coming into the 1996 Presidential elections, when Republicans hope to recapture the White House.

In this context, it is wise not to believe the initial promises of compromise and cooperation coming from both the Clinton White House and the new Republican leadership in Congress. The real stakes are who controls the Presidency, and that is where all eyes will be for the next two years. In the interim, one would expect that before too long the Republican leadership in Congress or the Clinton Administration – or both – will claim that the other side has broken its word and misrepresented its position, and further movement on legislation will be unlikely.

With this in mind, Republicans can be expected to be more obstructionist of the Clinton agenda than they were last year, and at least as obstructionist as Democrats were during George Bush’s last two years in office. Just as Republicans denied Clinton a number of legislative victories he sought in 1993-94, they will most certainly not give him any major victories in 1995 or 1996. “Gridlock,” that is complete stagnation due to the refusal of either side to compromise, will return to Washington.

The Republicans, with control of all the committees in the House and Senate that are actually responsible for putting legislation before the full chamber for votes, will be in a position to cause enormous difficulties for the President. For example, with Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato in charge of the Senate Banking Committee and Congressman Jim Leach in charge of the House Banking Committee, it is almost certain that the Whitewater controversy will be reopened in an attempt to embarrass the President.

And with Republican Senator Jesse Helms in charge of the House Foreign Relations Committee, the President’s ambassadorial appointments will receive tough scrutiny and some will almost certainly be blocked, as will the President’s initiatives for foreign affairs. For example, if an Israel-Syria peace agreement requires the presence of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights, it will be more difficult to secure the necessary Senate approval now that Republicans, led by 92 year old Strom Thurmond who will chair the Armed Services Committee, can block such a move (and some have already spoken against it). And Clinton’s appointments to open judgeships will most certainly be tied up in long and severe scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee under the control of Senator Orrin Hatch.

The road to 1996 will be a rough one, and no outcome is certain. Despite the prophets of doom on the Democratic side and projections of victory on the Republican side, Republicans cannot count on an easy victory for a number of reasons.

The same voter anger that swept Bill Clinton into office in 1992 and Republicans into office in 1994, will hold both Clinton and the Republicans accountable in 1996, and Congress invariably receives worse public approval ratings than does the President. Failure to fulfill the expectations they have helped create in the 1994 campaign with their “Contract” could cause voter anger to turn on them again.

It is important to note that Republicans are not unified as a party. The moderate and conservative wings of the party do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. And there is intense competition among several Republican leaders who each plan to count on that support for their 1996 Presidential bids. It is likely that at least eight Republicans will announce for President in 1995, and the Republican campaign will be a divisive one. Social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights which are supported by moderates (like Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania who is expected to announce his presidential bid this month, and Governor Pete Wilson of California) are bitterly opposed by party conservatives.

Finally, the power of the Presidency, if used correctly, can be important in defining a national agenda, which gives Clinton the ability to establish an alternative set of themes for the national debate. Former President Harry Truman, it will be recalled, lost 52 Congressional seats in the 1946 mid-term elections, faced a serious challenge from within in the Democratic primary and still went on to win reelection in 1948. President Clinton will have a real opportunity to define his Presidency in the next two years.

In some ways, it will be easier for Clinton to define his Presidency with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress than it was for him to do it in the last two years with his own party in control. While the President faced the burden of building coalitions to pass is legislation and took sniping from both Republicans and Democrats who didn’t like his proposals in 1993-94, he can posture and criticize over the next two years just as the Republicans do. What works to the President’s advantage is that it is easier for his Administration to speak with a single voice than it is for almost 300 Republicans in Congress to speak in unison. In the end, voters will decide whether they believe the President or the Congress, and whether they support the Democratic or the Republican vision.

But if Clinton is to win, he must act as he did following his Middle East tour. He must campaign for his ideas and he must define the difference between his vision and that of the Republicans. It should be noted that in those states where the President did campaign, his candidates either won (as in the case of Robb, Feinstein and Kennedy) or greatly improved their standing (as in the cases of Senate campaigns in Washington and Michigan and the New York Governors’ race).

If the President loses control of the public debate or falters in foreign affairs (his recent decision to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia is a positive indicator he may not falter), then Democrats may suffer further defeats in 1996. Otherwise, everything that happened in this volatile post-Cold War political climate can be reversed.

Stay tuned. The next two years will be quite eventful.

***

ARAB AMERICANS MAKE SIGNIFICANT GAINS IN U.S. CONGRESS

Arab Americans will be adding to their ranks in the U.S. Congress come January, when newly-elected Ray LaHood (R-IL), John Baldacci (D-ME), and Spence Abraham (R-MI) will join incumbents Pat Danner (D-MO), and Nick Rahall (D-WV) on Capitol Hill.

As part of the of the Republican wave that swept the nation this past Tuesday, two Arab American Republicans registered strong wins in their respective states. Spence Abraham in Michigan won a seat in the United States Senate to become the first Republican Senator from that state since 1978, and the successor to retiring Senator George Mitchell’s title of the only Arab American in the U.S. Senate. Ray LaHood, the Chief of Staff of Minority Leader Bob Michel won an impressive victory in Illinois beating his Democratic opponent by 40,000 votes or 20% and will be the next Congressman from the 18th District of Illinois.

Arab American Democrats fared well despite the overwhelming anti-incumbent, anti-democrat mood of the country. In Maine, Democrat John Baldacci—of Lebanese/Italian heritage and a first cousin of George Mitchell—won convincingly in the 2nd Congressional district. Additionally, two of the most prominent Arab Americans Democrats, Congressman Nick Rahall and Congresswoman Pat Danner bucked the Republican sweep and won their re-election bids handily; both by at least 25%.

In local and state campaigns, Arab Americans followed the national trend more closely with Republican candidates winning by huge margins and Democrats squeaking out narrow victories. Overall, Arab Americans largely managed to win re-election to their local state houses and judgeships. The tally as of today is: six State Representatives, four State Senators and two judges. There are still five races whose outcomes are still being determined.

The Arab American community was effective in the areas where they are heavily concentrated. In Michigan, where five Arab American candidates were running, the community organized numerous fundraisers, rallies, and candidates nights on their behalf and on election day, turned out in huge numbers to ensure their victory at the polls.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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