They had barely broken for the first commercials on election night when the media Wise Men began to intone the mantra that will be endlessly repeated by liberals and country-club Republicans over the next two years: Voters had rejected divisiveness and extremism (read conservative religious values) in favor of moderation (read toleration of abortion, gay rights, and sex in the Oval Office). By the end of the evening, this theme or a close variant was used to explain everything from the Davis-Boxer victories in California to the D’Amato and Faircloth losses in New York and North Carolina.
The appealing conservatism of the Bush brothers, impressive wins by pro-lifers Peter Fitzgerald and Jim Bunning in Illinois and Kentucky, control by Republicans of 31 governorships (including eight of the nine largest states), massive rejection of assisted suicide in Michigan and of gay marriage in Hawaii and Alaska—all this, and more, were glossed over or ignored. What we got instead was an almost exclusive emphasis on the triumph of Bill Clinton over his petty partisan enemies, loss of five Republican seats in the House, and the GOP’s failure to expand its Senate base.
Congressional Republicans certainly failed to convey a distinctive message to voters, but the explanation is almost entirely the opposite of that suggested by the punditocracy. The surest way for the GOP to lose control of Congress would be to abandon religious conservatives, who constitute 25-30 percent of the electorate and generally vote 2-1 Republican—when the GOP gives them reason to do so. Somewhere between 1994 and 1998, however, congressional Republicans lost their focus and their nerve. Out-maneuvered by Mr. Clinton at every critical turn, they consoled themselves by thinking that Ken Starr would solve their problems. When that strategem failed, they compounded the error two weeks before the election by signing off on a budget deal that downplayed issues dividing them from Democrats. With little more than warm and fuzzy rhetoric as their campaign strategy, and not knowing whether to ignore or criticize the scoundrel in the White House, they soon found themselves praying for a low turnout on November 3. This, mind you, from a party that claims to be the true voice of the people!
If the Republicans escaped by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins, the Democrats have little to write home about. They are braying loudly about their triumphs in California and New York, which is fair enough, but when the cheering stops they will contemplate the length of the odds that stand between them and the rest of the electoral map. And although they now rejoice that their president has escaped from the hangman yet again, they may rue the day they tied their fortunes to Mr. Clinton’s narcissistic preoccupations. In the six years since he assumed office, they have suffered a net loss of 12 Senate seats, 55 House seats, 11 governorships, more than a dozen state houses, and multiple hundreds of other state and local offices. Give the Republicans another president like Clinton, and they may rule the country forever in spite of themselves.
Even so, barring some new and compelling revelation by Judge Starr, Mr. Clinton will not be impeached. Republicans will talk about doing their constitutional duty, but come endgame they will likely contrive some novel legislative slap on the wrist—a horrible precedent that mocks and wounds the Constitution, but neither they nor the public has the stomach for a pitched battle over impeachment. If Mr. Clinton allows his brains to govern his vanity, he will call off his congressional dogs in return for some sort of resolution of censure. If he seeks revenge against Mr. Starr, the next couple of months could give a new definition to ugly.
Come to that, Republicans should not shrink from the challenge, nor should they be shy about installing new leadership. With an eye on the longer term, they will have to sound less like a party of bumper strips and bookkeepers, and more like a party committed to ideas that find purchase in peoples’ lives. Here is where religious conservatives can make a real contribution. They need to understand how and why the gay marriage and assisted suicide plebiscites were defeated, and teach those lessons to party apparatchiks. They also need to learn why Coloradans simultaneously voted for parental notification but against a ban on partial-birth abortion. My own hunch is that the latter campaign was seen as an assault on female reproductive rights rather than as a protection of an infant’s life. By focusing on the child, the hearts and minds of the public can be won. And that is the only effective answer to those who want to sever the GOP from the pro-life cause.