Election results show desire for change lingers ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- The White House has done its best to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear of Tuesday's off-year election results, highlighted by Republican victories in the three most prominent contests -- for governor in New Jersey and Virginia and for mayor in New York City.

The official spin, uttered in coordinated harmony from President Clinton, White House communications director Mark Gearan and Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm, is that the voters were simply repeating what they said a year ago in electing Bill Clinton -- that they want change.

While insisting that no great conclusions could be drawn from the outcome, the president said it was clear that "the American people want change and they want results," and that they have "a sense that government is not working for them."

Gearan contended that he saw nothing in the results "that can dissuade us or remove any ounce of our initiative for pushing forth on the kind of change-oriented agenda the president has laid out for the American people." And Wilhelm weighed in with the observation that "some of that same desire for change that xTC we benefited from last year is obviously still there. A lot of people are skeptical, and it is going to be a challenge in every instance to convince them that politicians can provide real leadership."

That indeed is Clinton's own challenge going on 10 months into his presidency. All the polls indicate that the voters are yet to be convinced that he can and will bring about real change, and Tuesday's results -- especially in New Jersey -- cast a somber shadow over Clinton's efforts to do so, particularly in health-care reform, where he is seeking higher taxes to help pay the bill.

The defeat of Democratic Gov. James Florio by Republican newcomer Christine Todd Whitman clearly can be laid to Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase pushed through in his first year after having said as a candidate in 1989 that he foresaw no need for new taxes. An exit poll found that among voters who considered taxes the most important issue he lost by 3-to-1.

Although Clinton insisted after Tuesday's voting that "it's certainly not a message to run and hide from the tough issues," New Jersey voters seemed to be saying that any incumbent who breaks what is perceived as a campaign promise not to raise taxes, even for justifiable reasons, will pay dearly. George Bush, who made that promise explicitly in his "read my lips, no new taxes" declaration and then broke it, found that out last year.

In the same 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton dangled a tax cut before middle-class voters but then included them among Americans who will pay higher taxes as a result of his deficit-reduction package. Neither the new president nor members of Congress who went along with his tax increases are likely to dismiss the New Jersey vote as cavalierly as the president's post-election words indicated.

The Republicans did not have to engage in any rhetorical gymnastics to come up with their own spin on the victories of their main candidates -- Whitman, George Allen for governor in Virginia and Rudy Giuliani for mayor in New York. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was quick to proclaim 1993 "the year of Republicans" and "a big, big defeat for the White House."

Just how valid the second claim is depends on whether you believe that the president's active campaigning for Florio and losing Democratic Mayor David Dinkins in New York hurt them. It certainly didn't help, nor did his staying out of the Virginia race help Democratic loser Mary Sue Terry.

The White House invoked, with some validity, the old Tip O'Neill axiom that "all politics is local." Just as Florio's tax increase brought him down, Virginians' desire for change after 12 years of Democratic rule in Richmond and New Yorkers' anxiety over crime and Giuliani's reputation as a tough-guy prosecutor were local sentiments that had little or nothing to do with the man in the White House.

At the same time, Wilhelm acknowledged that "it is not a good time to be an incumbent politician in this country" -- a reminder to his boss that just saying you're for change is not enough for voters who want to see it.

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