WASHINGTON -- After term limits went down to defeat in Congress on Wednesday, the two political parties spent the rest of the week jockeying for the high ground on an issue embraced by about 80 percent of Americans.
Democratic Rep. Pete Peterson of Florida accused Republican leaders of not wholeheartedly wanting term limits. Another Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, cried: "There are more people in this body voting yes and praying no to term limits."
Not so, replied Haley Barbour, the Republican Party chief. Noting that 80 percent of the Republicans voted for term limits and 80 percent of the Democrats voted against, Mr. Barbour vowed: "Term limits have not been defeated; they've been delayed."
But have they?
The ire among the citizenry that gave rise to term limits in the first place is already sending incumbents home in state after state. The question the Democrats and Republicans should be asking themselves is whether the vote they took Wednesday even matters.
In five years, 22 states have passed term limits, 20 of them applying to Congress as well as to state legislatures. This momentum remains. In Mississippi, a term-limit proposal is on the November ballot. In New Hampshire, the state Senate just voted 24-0 for term limits.
The Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of those measures. Oral arguments in the first test case were heard Nov. 29.
"I think the court is going to uphold the right of states to limit, in some ways, who is on the ballot in their states," said Paul Jacob, head of U.S. Term Limits Inc.
Even if the justices do not, Mr. Jacob and like-minded reformers have already profoundly altered the way Americans view incumbency, tenure and seniority in politics. Consider what happened in the 1994 election and its aftermath:
* In 1994, 39 incumbents lost, leaving the House in Republican hands for the first time in 40 years.
* Exit polls showed that, for the first time, voters expressed a negative attitude toward incumbency itself -- even though nine out of 10 of those who sought re-election kept their seats.
L * A speaker of the House lost for the first time since 1860.
* Four longtime Democratic senators have announced since January that they won't seek re-election.
* The new Republican Congress limited the terms of the speaker and committee chairmen to three terms.
"That will be very hard politically to overturn," Mr. Jacob said approvingly. "We've made a lot of progress in changing the way people think."
Proponents of term limits, pointing out that even in 1994, 91 percent of incumbents won and 10 percent were unopposed, continue to push a federal law. But they concede that the amazing thing is that so much has happened, so fast.
Less than six years ago, Lloyd Noble, an Oklahoma rancher, approached his state's legislature with a proposal: As a way of encouraging a return to the concept of citizen-legislators, why not limit the number of terms a state legislator can serve?
When they gave him the bum's rush, he got angry -- and then he got even.
After Mr. Noble kicked in $50,000 of his own money to gather signatures, his initiative qualified for the ballot and passed by a margin of 2 to 1. That was Sept. 18, 1990, and it changed the face of modern politics.
Partly because of their anti-government ideology and partly because they were out of power, Republican conservatives were quicker to comprehend the power of this movement -- and to hitch their wagons to it.
But term limits were initially a nonpartisan movement.
In Oklahoma, Mr. Noble, a conservative Republican, allied himself with Cleta Mitchell, a well-known liberal Democrat who has since moved to Washington to devote herself to the movement full time.
It also attracted the interest of the bipartisan Coalition to End the Permanent Congress. That group, formed by Kansas City businessman Lionel Kunst, was made up of challengers to congressional seats -- of both parties -- from around the country who had run for office only to be run over by the powerful advantages of incumbency.
At first, Mr. Kunst's group thought term limits too draconian. Its solution was to dismantle the institutional advantages members of Congress had built up over the years: gerrymandered districts, advantages in fund-raising abilities and unlimited free mailings.
But when the Democratic barons who ran Congress dismissed them out of hand, they, too, embraced term limits.
So did iconoclastic outsiders such as Jack Gargan, a retired Tampa, Fla., financial planner who was incensed by the ever-larger national debt Congress keeps adding to. He launched a group called T.H.R.O. Inc. (for Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out.)
In June 1990, he took out full-page ads in newspapers urging his fellow Floridians to vote against incumbents, regardless of party. He was overwhelmed with volunteers and contributions -- and took his campaign national.
That fall, a few more congressional seats than usual changed hands. More significantly, numerous incumbents won by surprisingly close margins. Pollsters in both parties began finding many voters who said that they used to think poorly of Congress in general but highly of their own representative. Suddenly, they were wondering about their representative, too.
In 1992, even more incumbents lost than in 1990. Coupled with the large number of open seats, the freshman class in the House numbered 110. Two years later came the great sweep of 1994, bringing 87 more freshmen. In all, 219 members -- a majority -- have been there less than five years.
Advocates like Cleta Mitchell and Paul Jacob understand that their success in educating Americans to the peril of lifetime lawmakers can be used against them.
Why trifle with the Constitution if Americans are imposing limits on office-holders the old-fashioned way -- at the ballot box?
Meanwhile, the ardor of some Republicans for term limits has also predictably dimmed now that they are in power.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey said that if Republicans "can straighten out the House," Americans may be satisfied.
Ms. Mitchell scoffed at that reasoning: "They don't want to go home. They love this job."
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, a 70-year-old Illinois Republican, expressed a different objection than Mr. Armey. "I think America is always going to need statesmen, and you don't get them out of the phone book."
Perhaps, but the Framers discussed this very issue. And if, in their wisdom, they didn't require term limits, they at least foresaw the pitfalls of incumbency.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Roger Sherman talked about a Congress made up of "citizen legislators" who would serve a couple of terms and then return to their farms, law practices -- and hometowns.
Otherwise, he warned, they might "acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from their constituents."