WASHINGTON -- Ever since Ronald Reagan marched to the center of the national political stage 15 years ago, Republicans have been talking about a "realignment" that would make them the dominant force in American politics. As the smoke lifts from the results Tuesday, it appears they now have achieved it.
The depth and breadth of the Republican successes in the South and the more conservative states of the Far West have left the Democratic Party with a base concentrated in the areas of declining population and influence -- principally in the Rust Belt states of the Northeast and Midwest. And even there, Republicans are generally ascendant today except in a few isolated outposts.
Just as important as the numbers is the realignment that has taken place in the priorities given to issues. If there was a clear message in the results of the 1994 midterm elections, it was that the voters want the federal government to reduce their taxes and to play a less intrusive role in their lives. It was a message not lost on the Democratic survivors, many of whom managed to escape defeat only by distancing themselves from their national party.
It was not clear, however, whether President Clinton himself has gotten that message. In his news conference yesterday, he spoke of having made "a good start" on changes the voters showed Tuesday they want -- an assessment in stark conflict with opinion polls on Mr. Clinton's performance.
The movement toward the Republicans in the South has been under way for a generation, ever since the election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968. But it has been incremental and sometimes halting, interrupted temporarily by unusual circumstances such as Watergate and, more recently, the advent of a "new Democrat," Bill Clinton, who won the electoral votes of five Southern states in 1992: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Tennessee.
But the results in the South Tuesday showed how unlikely it is that another Bill Clinton could do that today. In Tennessee, for example, the Democrats lost both Senate seats, as well as the governorship and three House seats.
In Georgia, Democrats forfeited three seats, to leave the makeup of the House delegation 7-to-4 for Republicans, with two of the Democratic seats in black-majority districts drawn to meet court orders. Gov. Zell Miller, an early backer of Mr. Clinton, survived narrowly but only because he has always enjoyed strong support in the black community to compensate for widespread white defections he suffered Tuesday.
In North Carolina, which Mr. Clinton lost narrowly in 1992, Republicans gained three seats, to create an 8-to-4 Republican House delegation by winning in seats vacated by veteran Democrats in districts that had shown a Republican trend for years. Similarly, in Mississippi, the Republicans won the seat of Jamie Whitten with 63 percent of the vote. And in Florida's 1st District in the Panhandle, where Earl Hutto retired, a Republican won with 61 percent.
In Florida, Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. survived, apparently because of the campaign gaffes of his Republican challenger, Jeb Bush, but the trend is still inexorable. Republicans now hold 15 of Florida's 23 House seats -- and weren't even contested in nine of them Tuesday. In Texas, Gov. Ann W. Richards succumbed to the electoral tide despite high personal popularity in the polls.
Although there are one or two races unsettled, it now appears that in the 13 states of the South -- the Old Confederacy plus Texas and Oklahoma -- Republicans will hold 69 seats in the House to 66 for the Democrats, a majority for the first time since Reconstruction.
But the sea change that occurred Tuesday was more than numbers. To the politicians who were involved, the results spoke volumes about the views of voters on the role of the federal government and the ruling Democratic hierarchy.
In his post-election news conference, Mr. Clinton struggled to find common ground with them when he said they want "smaller government that gives them better value for the dollar" -- a finding evident all through the campaign and in the exit polls conducted Tuesday.
But Mr. Clinton would have a difficult time finding evidence that the voters want the government to, as he put it, "accelerate the pace of change" already set in motion by his administration. Instead, they seem to want the government to leave them alone and stop taking away their guns and their taxes while looking out for homosexuals in the military.
One indication of the focus on money was the response to an exit-poll question on the priorities of the respondents. Only 30 percent mentioned health care reform, fewer than half as many who cited welfare reform. Americans seem to see welfare as outrageously expensive to taxpayers, unfair to working people and monumentally ineffective.
What the voter attitudes suggest is that all the warm and fuzzy talk about "working together" coming from Mr. Clinton and such Republicans as Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich may be missing the point of the 1994 elections: that the voters who turned so strongly against the Democrats are not necessarily looking for the same kind of government under bipartisan labeling.
Realignment is more than simply electing more Republicans.