What this election is really about

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE VOTERS WILL determine on Tuesday after next the direction the country will take for years. This is as close to a "liberal" vs. "conservative" plebiscite as any in memory.

No, not the election for president. Everyone seems to concede that to President Clinton. And he has adopted enough of his adversaries' positions, for the nonce, to blur its ideological distinction.

Rather, the election of Congress, the aggregate of individual races for the Senate and House of Representatives, is up for grabs. It will decide welfare policy, spending levels, Medicare practices, immigration, much of foreign policy and controversial social issues with lasting effect.

In disgust at a permanent congressional establishment, the people rose up in 1994 and threw the Democratic rascals out.

They put in a brash Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich of Georgia that promised a "revolution" and reversed national course in crucial policy areas, fulfilling promises known collectively as "Contract with America."

For a year, Speaker Gingrich was the true leader of the Republican Party, dazzling the country, the true Anti-Clinton. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, his senior, was dragged along.

Then the Gingrich army enacted the measures that had sounded so attractive as opposition rhetoric. And much of the country was appalled. Shutting down the government. Throwing vulnerable people off welfare. All that stuff.

The pendulum swings

And the pendulum started reversing course. Polls indicate that voters are now against the Republican Congress, though more moderately than they were against the Democrats in 1994.

Both the Senate, which Republicans hold, 53 to 47, and the House, where they lead 235 to 198 (with one independent and one vacancy) are expected to become more Democratic.

But in each house, this shift may stop short of a Democratic majority. In the Senate, with only one-third of the seats to be decided, several such as Massachusetts and Minnesota could even move from the Democratic to Republican column.

The most significant Senate race is North Carolina, where Harvey Gantt is trying again to unseat Jesse Helms, the most right-wing and obstructionist senator from anywhere, who leads in the polls.

So far has the pendulum swung back in House races that Rep. Bob Ehrlich, the Baltimore-Harford County freshman who basked reflected glory as archetypal Gingrich Man, now has television commercials calling him "independent." (This is even more bizarre than mistaking his mother for The Sun.)

There is no tyranny of the center in House races. A vote for Mr. Ehrlich is a vote for Newt Gingrich to finish the job. A vote for Democratic challenger Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis is a vote to make protectionist Richard Gebhardt of Missouri speaker of the House, and the welfarist Charles Rangel of New York chairman of Ways and Means, etc.

There is no smudging this. And it is the key issue in all 435 House elections. It may be decided by reverse-coattail effect. A possibly decisive fragment of the electorate tells pollsters that it favors divided government and, assuming a Clinton presidency, would vote Republican for Congress.

So well does President Clinton know this that he refrains from urging the election of Democrats he favors. So well does the Republican National Committee understand it that it encourages campaigning to deny a blank check to President Clinton.

At this point, some reflective Americans might say, "Whoa! Wouldn't President Dole and a Democratic Congress be preferable to President Clinton and a Republican Congress?"

Tough on them. If the polls are right, that is not an option.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/26/96

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