A Progressive Mandate from the Voters? Think Again

Anyone so foolish to have read the election returns as a harbinger of progressive politics in America ought to take a second look.

To be sure, Bill Clinton's victory -- the second for a Democrat president in 24 years -- will herald a dramatic change from the anti-governmentalism of the Reagan-Bush era. With the "bully pulpit" at his command plus a few good economic policies, Mr. Clinton might restore some faith that government can be a positive instrument of the people's will.


But check out results of 232 measures on ballots across 42 states and the public speaks with a quite different voice: We don't like politicians; we can't wait to limit their terms. Don't tax us. Don't spend our money.

Election Day did bring a handful of "progressive" voter decisions. After years of national embarrassment, loss of convention business and cancellation of the 1993 Super Bowl in Phoenix, Arizonans finally agreed to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday. Oregonians voted down an extremist measure to define homosexual behavior as "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse" and to stop state and local governments from protecting gay rights.


And in Arizona and Maryland, voters made it clear they wanted abortion to be a personal, not a state, decision.

But when the subject switched to government itself, the voters turned surly. All 14 initiative measures to limit congressional and state legislative terms were approved -- and not just narrowly, but by a phenomenal average of 67 percent, 20 million popular votes in all.

"We have a mammoth mandate," said Pennsylvania's former Rep. James Coyne, founder of Americans to Limit Congressional Terms. With "watershed" results like these, said Cleta Mitchell of the U.S. Terms Limit Council, Congress should move within 100 days to send a term-limiting constitutional amendment to the states.

It's easy to be cynical about the term-limit hoopla. Of the 116 congressional incumbents running in the 14 states voting term limits, the voters returned all but six to Washington. And this in the year of supposed anti-incumbent rage!

But the anti-government tone of the term-limit votes splashed over into dollars-and-cents issues. Voters were so anxious to weigh in against taxes, they were even willing, in a couple of cases, to tie their state legislatures' hands.

Arizonans voted to require a hard-to-get two-thirds legislative majority to increase taxes. And Colorado voters gave 54 percent approval to what may be the nation's most draconian tax-and-spending limit. The so-called Taxpayer's Bill of Rights requires that virtually any increases in taxes, in spending, or in public debt, go to a full vote of the people. Only increases to reflect inflation or population growth are exempted.

Similar measures had been on Colorado's ballot eight times since 1966, and always failed -- until now. Coloradans also gave a decisive "no" to Gov. Roy Romer's "Children First" initiative to increase the sales tax by a penny to upgrade the quality of Colorado's public schools and the preparedness of its future work force.

In California, a "tax-the-rich" initiative to raise $2.1 billion more a year from corporations and wealthy individuals went down to defeat; and voters overwhelmingly repealed the so-called "snack tax" on junk food enacted last year to help cover the state's massive deficit.


One's left wondering just where Californians think the money to run government is going to come from. They're not much interested in investing in the future either. A $1 billion rail bond measure, to fight road gridlock in a pollution- and congestion-afflicted state, went down to defeat.

In New York, $800 million in bonds backed by Gov. Mario Cuomo to reinvigorate a lagging state economy and make water and sewer, road, port and waterfront improvements was also rejected.

There were exceptions to the anti-financing mood, but not too many. In most cases on the state level, the very type of investment in America's future which Governor Clinton extolled in his campaign, the kind of infrastructure and education investment Ross Perot also urged, was vetoed by the voters.

A slight progressive tilt could be seen in the 12 gubernatorial elections, as progressive candidates such as Washington's Mike Lowry and North Carolina's Jim Hunt won close contests. But not even its worst fiscal crisis of the century was enough to convince knee-jerk anti-tax New Hampshire to vote for a pro-tax, government-reform candidate.

The economic reality, as state fiscal expert Steven Gold warns, is that state budgets have already been slashed so deeply that we can expect a slew of tax increases in 1993.

The short-term outlook is for even more discord, shortage, cutbacks and recriminations in the states. And the situation may not change until there's a sea change in Americans' feelings about the economy, about government, about investing in their own future.


What all this means is that President-elect Clinton won't be able to stop at an economic recovery program -- which will be tough enough. He'll have to mount a public education job, rebuilding Americans' faith in their governments, that is likely to make the challenge of winning the presidency look almost elementary.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.