Republicans, don't haul out the Champagne just yet


MEMORANDUM TO: Haley Barbour, chairman, Republican National Committee

From: An observer

The urge to kick up your heels and pop the Champagne must be almost irresistible at the moment. Just one year ago, Republicans went down to humiliating defeat at the presidential level and in a number of Senate races -- including painful ones like the Bruce Herschensohn loss to Barbara Boxer.

But in the year that followed, Democrats have suffered one embarrassing loss after another at the polls. First, there was the special election for U.S. senator from Georgia just a few weeks after the November triumph for Bill Clinton. Democratic incumbent Wyche Fowler was defeated by Republican Paul Coverdell. Then, the lieutenant governor ship of Arkansas went to a Republican for the first time in several glacial ages.

Los Angeles elected a Republican mayor, and Texas chose a Republican senator by a punishing 2-to-1 margin. With Tuesday's sweep, Republicans now control the statehouse in Virginia (and a working majority in the legislature), the mayoralty of New York and the governorship of New Jersey.

In short, Mr. Chairman, your party has come a very long way from the obituaries that were being written last year at this time. (Remember all the speculation about a Ross Perot party taking the place of the Republican Party as the opposition to Bill Clinton and the Democrats?)

And there's even more good news in the lessons of some of last week's victories. Most obviously, the New Jersey race proved that even a lackluster, inconsistent Republican like Christine Todd Whitman can defeat a Democrat who promises not to raise taxes and then double-crosses the voters with a massive tax increase. If Jim Florio had been re-elected, Mr. Clinton's political advisers (who also ran the Florio campaign) would have crowed that voters will forgive tax hikes. Now, licking their wounds, they must contemplate the New Jersey race's significance for President Clinton.

The Virginia race was important in two ways. First, it demonstrated the weakness of the "religious right" card in Democratic hands. Democrat Mary Sue Terry attempted to demonize the Republican ticket by stressing its ties to TV evangelist and Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson. It backfired. Instead of running from the association (as so many Republicans do), Gov.-elect George Allen denounced the smear tactics of the Terry campaign. Christian voters supported Mr. Allen by a 3-to-1 margin.

Virginia Democrats did pick off Christian activist Mike Farris in the race for lieutenant governor -- but only by outspending him 10 to 1.

As former Rep. Vin Weber has noted, the additional significance of the Virginia race is that it proves a conservative Republican can defeat a "new Democrat." Mary Sue Terry has a reputation for fiscal restraint, and the Democratic Party in Virginia -- through Sen. Chuck Robb and outgoing Gov. Douglas Wilder -- is strongly associated with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party. Yet Mr. Allen's commercials depicting Ms. Terry as part of the Wilder/Robb clique proved devastating.

Nevertheless, Mr. Chairman, do not uncork the Champagne just yet. Voters have turned to Republicans warily, by slim margins in most cases. And the Republicans they have chosen are (mostly) unlikely to get results.

Fear of crime and dismay at the social chaos of our cities drove elections in Los Angeles and New York. Yet the nostrums of Rudolph Giuliani and Richard Riordan -- "throw away the key" -- won't work and will lead the voters to another restive toss of incumbents next time.

What the voters are seeking is a return to order and decency. They are weary and worried about the brutality of American life in an era when tourists must fear for their lives. But the Republican Party, which should stand for a social revolution to end welfare and to strengthen the family, is still timid. Only Brent Schundler, the recently elected mayor of Jersey City, represents the kind of reform politician (pro-choice in education, against rent control, anti-welfare) that can make the Republican Party the majority party.

The 1993 elections have installed some George Bush look-alikes (Giuliani, Riordan, Whitman) in a number of offices. That is not a great victory; it is a problem.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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