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Conservative Collapse

Photo: AP/Wide World

I. The Republicans: Down and Out on Capitol Hill

The revolution is over.

While last week's election may have been a knock in the head to the Republican Party generally, it was a dagger through the heart of the Republican right. As moderate GOP governors swept to victory all across America, hard-right GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates - Alabama's Fob James, South Carolina's David Beasley and our very own Dan Lungren - were going down in states long regarded as Republican strongholds.

It was the congressional right, however, that suffered the gravest defeats over the past week. Not only did they lose their national leader when Newt Gingrich was shoved from the speakership, but they then lost the brutish and short battle to elect his successor. Christopher Cox, the five-term Republican congressman from Newport Beach who waged a two-day campaign for the post, is the darling of the party's economic right. A former Reagan White House lawyer who advised supply-side maniac Arthur Laffer during his quixotic 1986 Senate campaign, Cox was endorsed by The Wall Street Journal for the speakership even as Louisiana's Bob Livingston, the wheeling-dealing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was cajoling and, apparently, threatening his colleagues in a successful attempt to lock down their votes.

Livingston is a Southern conservative like Gingrich - but he's not a movement conservative like Cox. During Clinton's first term, according to the indices compiled by The Almanac of American Politics, Livingston aligned himself with the more liberal position on 22 percent of key votes, while Cox voted that way just 3 percent of the time.

When historians look back on the period of the Gingrich speakership, I suspect they will view these years as a period of self-destructive excess on the right, much as they view the late '60s and early '70s as a time of self-induced implosion on the left. Both the late-'60s left and the mid-'90s right began by espousing broadly popular causes - respectively, opposition to the Vietnam War and opposition to welfare - but a sense of maddened rectitude soon pushed them to the fringes of the political spectrum. Just as the '60s left in its Weatherman period announced that its mission was to wage an insurrection against established society, the '90s right moved to smash the state by closing down the federal government, made private morality a public matter by the prominence it gave to the abortion issue and the Lewinsky affair, and otherwise made clear that it, too, was spoiling for a civil war that would purify America.

On both the Weather-left and the Gingrich-right, intensity substituted for breadth of support, and each group's apostles came to dwell within a hall of mirrors that led them to believe their strength was far beyond what the numbers actually were. At their fringes, both movements had their mad bombers, though the right's - Timothy McVeigh - was a hundredfold more deadly than anyone out of the left.

Now, in the wake of last week's electoral repudiation, Republicans are scurrying madly away from the politics of jihad that they've practiced for the past four years. Problem is, their respectable, mainstream-right agenda looks shaky as well. Post-revolutionary Speaker Livingston still affirms the centrality of tax cuts to any Republican plan of government, but cutting taxes didn't rank all that high in any of Tuesday's exit polls, which showed the electorate far more concerned about education, and almost equally concerned about Social Security and the economy. In fact, by ending welfare, Republicans have inadvertently helped to rehabilitate government spending. (It no longer subsidizes loafers, you see.) The GOP's big winners this month weren't the anti-statist zealots of Congress, but Republican governors who had identified themselves with improving the public schools in their states.

And yet, the right is not going gently into the moderate night. Even as Gingrich was desperately trying to shore up his support within the Republican caucus last week, his colleagues from the party's neo-Puritan wing demanded that he pledge to push the impeachment proceedings with renewed vigor. GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes complained that the reason for last week's Republican reversals was their reticence in going after Clinton. These are positions that are not simply out of step with the American public, but on another planet altogether.

Indeed, the Republicans now running to replace Gingrich's praetorian guard may be cosmetically correct (they include one female and one black - Congress' only black Republican), but all of them stand well to the right of the GOP's center-right govs. Nor, if Monday's hearings are any indication, do the congressional Republicans seem to know how to derail the impeachment proceedings. Gingrich is gone, but Gingrichism - the Democrats can only hope - still lives.

 

II. The Republicans: Screwed in Sacramento

As bad as things may seem for the Republican right nationally, they're worse in California.

Just a few years ago, shortly after Gingrich assumed the speakership in D.C., Orange County Republican Rob Hurtt toppled more moderate leadership to become the president pro tem of the California state Senate - the leader of Sacramento's upper house. Combining his own campaign treasury with those of Christian-right moneybags Howard Ahmanson and Edward Atsinger, Hurtt funded a number of successful far-right legislative candidates.

Last Tuesday, Hurtt lost his Orange County seat to a Democratic insurgent whose support was centered among the newly naturalized and registered Latino Dem ocrats who were also contributing to Loretta Sanchez's 17 percent victory over Robert Dornan in the congressional district that overlapped Hurtt's. Dan Lungren won a mere 52 percent of the Orange County vote - way beneath the 65 percent Republicans are accustomed to accumulating. Nor was it only Orange County that was going south. Up in Fresno, Republican Assemblyman Robert Prenter - Atsinger's nephew, who used his uncle's money to oust a more moderate Republican two years ago - was himself ousted by a Latino Democrat in a district where, again, new Latino voters made the difference.

Shifts in the state's demographics were only one part of last week's Democratic landslide, of course. As the candidacies of Dan Lungren and attorney-general candidate Dave Stirling made abundantly clear, any statewide Republican who identifies himself with opposition to abortion and gun control is ceding the center of the electorate to his opponent. According to the L.A. Times exit poll, Gray Davis won 68 percent of self-described moderate voters last week, and 33 percent of Republican moderates. Nonetheless, as in D.C., the Republican right is blaming everyone but itself for the GOP's debacle. According to David Spady, head of the California Christian Coalition, the Republicans' woes may be laid to Matt Fong's moderation and the fact that Lungren's conservative message was "poorly delivered."

And yet, even if California Republicans manage to disenthrall themselves from the right-wing verities that are dragging them down, even if they manage to win back some of those moderates in elections to come, that will only begin to address their problems. The deeper GOP dilemma is that the state is racially recomposing itself while they remain the white folks' party - and even their hold on whites is growing increasingly tenuous.

Democrats were expecting to win the lion's share of the moderate vote last week; the private tracking polls of their statewide candidates had them leading in this key swing constituency. But all their polls underestimated their actual Election Day tallies by about 5 percent. That difference is entirely due to nonwhite turnout, which exceeded the Democrats' wildest expectations.

For, if we are to believe the Times exit poll, the nonwhite share of the California electorate, which constituted 17 percent of all state voters in 1994, increased to 34 percent of all state voters last week. That bears rephrasing: It doubled.

Which is to say, Gray Davis owes thank-you notes to Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr for so infuriating black voters that their share of the electorate rose from 5 percent to 13 percent, with 76 percent of their vote going to Davis. He owes a thank-you note to Pete Wilson, who helped boost Latino turnout from 8 percent to 13 percent, with 71 percent of their vote going to Davis. He owes a note to Matt Fong, who helped increase the Asian share of the vote from 4 percent to 8 percent, with 65 percent of that 8 percent going to Davis. Indeed, add up all of Davis' support among nonwhite voters, and he comes away with 24.5 percent of the total vote just from the 34 percent of the electorate that was nonwhite. That means he needed only one-third of all white votes to get to 50 percent. Instead, he received 51 percent of all white votes - enough to get him to 58 percent.

Exit polls are at their shakiest, it should be noted, when they assess the share of the electorate that particular groups constitute. The other California exit poll, from the Voter News Survey, pegged the level of nonwhite participation last week somewhat lower than the Times did, although the polls agree on the uptick in Latino voting. My own hunch is that the Times poll is closer to the truth. For one thing, a growing number of previously Republican districts across the state have been going Demo cratic over the past couple of years, as one working-class suburb after another has become Latino. This was apparent last Tuesday not just in Fresno and northern Orange County, but also in the Pomona-Ontario area (a Democratic Assembly pickup) and in Ventura County (a near Dem ocratic pickup of a hitherto solidly Republican seat). The old rule of politics was that the cities were largely nonwhite and Democratic, and the suburbs largely white and Republican. Now, the Latinos have reached the suburbs, and the whites . . .

 

Well, the whites have gone to Colorado. There's more than coincidence in the fact that as California has become more Democratic in the past couple of years, the Rockies have become more Republican. According to University of Michigan demographer Bill Frey, more than 1.6 million Californians have moved to other states during the past decade - disproportionately middle- and working-class whites uprooted by the huge downsizing of the state's aerospace industry. At the same time, over 2.6 million immigrants have come to California, chiefly Latino, secondarily Asian.

And the GOP's Latino problem, as I've noted before, goes well beyond Latinos' anger at Pete Wilson and his party for supporting Propositions 187, 209 and 227. Latinos also expect government to create greater economic opportunity by raising the minimum wage and boosting the funding for public education - expectations that are light-years distant from California Republicans' views on the proper role of the state. In California, as in Congress, even if the Republicans reposition themselves on issues of cultural politics, their core economic beliefs are at odds with the hopes that increasing numbers of voters have for government.

III. The Democrats: We're Not Really Okay, but They're Worse

None of which is to argue that the Democrats come out of last week's election in notably spiffy condition. For the third consecutive session, they control neither house of Congress. Worse yet, they control just 17 statehouses - the fewest since before the New Deal.

Of course, life in the minority has its consolations. A six-vote deficit in the House is probably easier to handle than a six-vote majority: In either case, the Dem ocrats probably couldn't pass significant legislation, and this way, they won't be blamed for it. This way, the question of What To Do With Bill Clinton remains the GOP's headache, not theirs. As to the governors' mansions, while the Dems hold a meager 17, they do control all five on the Pacific Coast, where the cultural conservatism of the GOP is increasingly out of sync with culturally moderate-to-liberal(-to-libertarian) electorates.

Despite their gains in the House, however, the Democrats lost the overall popular vote for the House last Tuesday, by a 49 percent to 51 percent margin. As Ruy Teixeira of the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out, the Democrats have improved their vote during the four elections of the Clinton years chiefly among the most affluent electors. Support for Democratic House candidates among voters from households with annual incomes over $75,000 has risen from 44 percent in '92 to 46 percent last Tuesday. Support for Dem ocratic House candidates among voters from households with annual incomes under $30,000 has declined since '92 - from 69 percent to 59 percent among voters in whose household the income level is beneath $15,000, from 57 percent to 55 percent among voters whose household income is between $15,000 and $30,000.

In '92, the Democrats stood for universal health insurance. Today, they are the party of reforming HMOs and defending Social Security - in each instance, in tepid and largely unspecified ways. If they are to regain their status as America's majority party, they will have to commit themselves more firmly to the causes of economic opportunity and security. In '98, the Democrats have reclaimed the center on cultural questions, but they have yet to formulate an economic agenda that will make a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans - and a real difference in the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

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