WASHINGTON -- Although it may seem a bit premature -- the fat lady has not yet appeared on stage -- the political community is alive with speculation about the aftermath of Nov. 3 if, as the polls now suggest is likely, Democrat Bill Clinton defeats President Bush. For the Republicans, it is not a happy prospect.
The most obvious effect of a Clinton victory, particularly one by a comfortable margin, would be on the makeup of Congress. The Republicans had reasonable hopes early this year of gaining 35 or more seats in the House of Representatives, thanks to both reapportionment and the fact there are so many more Democrats than Republicans in exposed positions as incumbents. But now those estimates have been scaled down to a Republican gain of perhaps as few as 15 seats.
In the campaign for the Senate, professionals in both parties now see a likely Democratic gain of three or four seats, depending in part on whether Clinton wins by the kind of margin that would provide coattails. Republican seats are clearly vulnerable in California, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin and might be in Missouri, New Hampshire and Arizona under some circumstances.
Whatever the numbers, it is already clear that there will be legions of new faces in Congress next year and, because politics is such an imitative business, many of them could be expected to position themselves as close to Clinton's version of the political center as possible.
But the most significant changes would be those in the makeup of the two parties themselves. Among the Democrats, the message in a Clinton success would be the signal for a turn away from traditional liberalism and a harder sell for the constituency groups that in the past have been able to bend the party to their wishes. Whatever else can be said about the Arkansas governor, it is clear he has reached his present position without having made the kinds of commitments on issues that could hamstring him in his first year in office.
What is more intriguing is the prospect of what could happen in the Republican Party if President Bush does not pull this one out of the fire in the final two weeks. The short answer is probably chaos. The president's problem within his party today, reflected sotto voce in criticism all across the country, is that he has not satisfied either the hard-line conservatives or the Republican moderates.
The right wing of the party is convinced that Bush put his re-election in jeopardy by not taking a hard enough line on conservative concerns, particularly on economic issues. They are prepared to blame him for abandoning supply-side economics and to rally around leaders who agree with that view.
On the other hand, the moderates already are blaming the president for going too far to placate the religious right on a whole series of issues. If Bush loses, for example, there will be a strong movement within the party to break away from its adamant position against abortion rights -- particularly if Clinton scores heavily among Republican suburban women voters, as some polls suggest he is likely to do.
The Republican aftermath if Bush loses would be most interesting because the contest for control of the party would be fought out in the context of its political apparatus, including the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee and, more importantly, the prospective presidential candidates for 1996. Republicans already are buzzing about the relative potential of Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, Bill Bennett, Dick Cheney and perhaps a half-dozen others. The conventional wisdom, although he obviously does not share it, is that a defeat would scuttle Dan Quayle.
At the moment, there is little speculation about what would happen among the Democrats if Clinton snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in these last two weeks. It seems too unlikely to be worth much attention. The one thing that is clear, however, is that if Clinton were to lose, it would be a long time before the Democratic Party tried to win with another moderate candidate.
All of this is no more than political gossip right now. Everyone recognizes that it is still possible for Bush to win. But the fact that there is so much talk about the aftermath speaks volumes about how unlikely a prospect that has become.