WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Had David Dinkins won in New York, the message would have been that President Clinton's visit (along with Hillary Rodham Clinton's and Tipper Gore's visits) demonstrated the growing political power of this administration.
Had Jim Florio won in New Jersey, it would have meant that higher taxes don't bother voters. And had Mary Sue Terry become the first woman governor of Virginia, pundits would have said the year of the liberal woman had been extended.
Instead, the clear message of Tuesday's "off-year" elections was that Mr. Clinton is the one having the off year. Voters again demonstrated not so much their distaste for incumbents but their growing intolerance with government that costs too much and delivers too little.
In the Virginia lieutenant governor's race, Mike Farris made a credible showing, capturing 46 percent of the vote despite a religiously bigoted campaign conducted by incumbent Don Beyer. The issues Mr. Farris raised brought out the pro-family vote that helped George Allen win the governor's race. Republicans should take note that this constituency remains a vital component of their party.
Ballot initiatives in many states and cities contained equally strong messages. Term limits passed in New York City, despite bitter editorial opposition from the New York Times. Gay-rights initiatives were handily defeated in Lewiston, Maine; Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Cincinnati. In the state of Washington, voters passed a "three times and you're out" referendum that would jail three-time felons for life with no parole. California voters rejected a school-choice proposal, but the issue lives, as other states pre- pare to consider similar measures.
Following earlier Republican election victories by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (the GOP even won the lieutenant governor's race in Arkansas) President Clinton and his party are in serious trouble and risk major reversals in next year's critical congressional races. Where is the president's base? If he has no clout in the Northeast -- a traditional stronghold for liberal Democrats -- where does he have strength? The answer: nowhere.
Republicans are being handed a rare opportunity, but they had better start recruiting the right kind of candidates for next year's congressional races. They must reclaim the low-tax, reduced-spending issues that George Bush gave away. They should not abandon the social-issues agenda but recast it -- focus not on government invading and imposing from the outside but instead building up and preserving traditional institutions. The preservation of families will do more to control crime and reduce the need for costly and ineffective government programs than life sentences, more police and National Guard troops in the streets.
Don't look for incumbent members of Congress to ask Mr. Clinton to campaign for them next year. Even worse for the president, Democrats in Congress will be less likely to vote for his programs, turning a deaf ear to party-loyalty appeals.
Mr. Clinton says the elections had nothing to do with his policies. Oh, yes, they did. And the next verdict will be delivered in 1994, with the final one coming in 1996.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.