WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and the Democratic Party have been dealt a humiliating defeat in the 1994 midterm elections.
Although some of the contests were decided on the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, there was clearly an element of referendum in the breadth and depth of Republican gains in both congressional and gubernatorial elections. The voters were saying that they are dissatisfied with a political establishment they perceive as too liberal and too distant, and that they want radical change overnight.
In a radio interview before the votes were counted, Mr. Clinton tried to soften the shock in advance by arguing that Americans are used to divided government and that it would not make "a great deal of difference" if Republicans control Congress. If the president really believes that, he has not been listening to the voices of the electorate this fall shouting in unison that it was time to start fresh at every level.
The returns were so lopsided against the Democrats that the message was unmistakable. Nowhere was this clearer than in the rejection of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York after three terms for an almost unknown state senator, George Pataki, who had seemed out of the picture 10 days ago. Within the political world, Mr. Cuomo was a giant; to the voters of 1994, he was just another liberal advocate of big government who had stayed too long on the job.
Even in cases in which Democrats survived the landslide, their margins were far below what they would have considered acceptable in other years. And the voters showed little or no willingness to reward service or legislative position -- as demonstrated clearly when they turned out Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee for a political neophyte just when it appeared, incorrectly as it turned out, that he was about to become majority leader.
The results will mean a series of entirely new problems confronting Mr. Clinton as president and as candidate for re-election in 1996.
The most obvious, of course, is the fact that he will now have to spend the next two years dealing with a Congress markedly more conservative than he has confronted in his first two years -- and, more to the point, a Congress that has just been given an overwhelming endorsement of its conservatism.
The president must adjust to this reality, moreover, at a time when every action he takes will be viewed through the prism of presidential politics. Much as they may deny it, the politicians in both parties believe the 1996 campaign begins today.
Mr. Clinton can expect not just the predictable hostility of the Republicans to many of his ideas but problems with a significant number of Democratic survivors who either stood apart from him during the campaign or will do so now that they have read the returns. Politics is an eminently practical business, but it is also one in which atmospherics play an important role. And the word now will be that Mr. Clinton is damaged goods who must give his own party some fresh reasons to rally around.
The wounds inflicted on the president were made all the more scarring by the White House decision to bring him back from the Middle East and put him on the campaign trail for a full week of full-throated pleading for his party and his administration. The inference everyone in politics now will draw is that this president, like so many others before him, has no ability to do anything for another politician other than raise money.
The White House will argue that the president may have helped some of the survivors of the massacre of 1994 -- Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, for instance -- but the pragmatists who dominate politics will point out instead that the party took the kind of licking it might have expected with a president so weak in the opinion polls.
With this kind of thinking pervading the political community, Mr. Clinton may find holding together a Democratic coalition to be as tricky as dealing with the newly empowered Republicans. If Mr. Clinton tries, for example, to move too far to the right to accommodate conservatives on the welfare reform issue, he will face the likelihood of substantial defections among liberals who have been the core of his support on health care reform.
Indeed, it is probably fair to say that, at the very least, Mr. Clinton will be obliged to put aside or drastically alter most of his legislative plans for the next two years.
VTC '96 presidential race
The dimensions of the Republican success were so striking that the whole context of the presidential campaign has been recast.
For one thing, although it may come to nothing, it would be a good bet now that there will be more sotto voce muttering within the Democratic Party about whether someone should challenge Mr. Clinton for the 1996 nomination.
The results also may alter the shape of the contest for the Republican nomination to oppose Mr. Clinton in two years. Such Washington figures as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich will have new stature as public figures that, at least in Mr. Dole's case, might translate into a better chance for the Republican nomination than he enjoyed before the 1994 votes were counted.
But the returns also may produce a half-dozen other possibilities for the Republican national ticket -- big state governors or fresh faces in the Senate. The one certainty at this point is that all the conventional wisdom about the shape of American politics today has been tossed into the ash heap.