News Analysis

If the 1994 elections represent a referendum on the first two years of the Clinton presidency, voters yesterday sent a clear message: President Clinton, change your ways.

Both candidates embraced by the President and even those only marginally connected to Clinton lost elections to Republicans committed to the Contract with America proposed by U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), likely the next Speaker of the House.

In New York, three-term Governor Mario A. Cuomo, who stood beside Clinton at countless fundraisers, lost to George Pataki, a state senator who blamed the state's job losses on the programs of the President and the Governor. U.S. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a Clinton ally in the drafting of the Crime Bill, lost his seat too. Brooks was criticized earlier in the year on national television by Republican standard bearer Gingrich for adding "pork" to the bill.

In Pennsylvania, first-term U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-Pa.), who cast the deciding vote on the Clinton budget proposal, lost her first re-election campaign, despite assurances from Clinton that he would personally campaign for her.

In Michigan, Spencer Abraham, an side to former Vice President Dan Quayle, defeated U.S. Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.) in a U.S. Senate race marked not only by negative advertising but also by repelled visits from Clinton.

In Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) lost to political neophyte and actor Fred Thompson in one of two Senate battles that shifted the state from Democrats to Republicans.

Cooper did not even actively seek Clinton's support, but part of his downfall may have come from the fact that he proposed a health care plan, Clinton's pet legislative project.

Even Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who rejected an invitation to appear with Clinton in his home state last month, couldn't move far enough away from the administration and lost to another unknown, George Nethercutt.

Across the country, almost everyone associated with Clinton saw their campaign efforts turn to dust. Voter frustration over a slow economic recovery may have precipitated some of yesterday's results. But Clinton's lack of flexibility in planning legislation has also brought about his party's downfall.

"Clinton's strategy was to propose things that would have some hope of passing with only Democratic votes," says David C. King, assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School of Government. "It was an absolutely bonehead strategy."

But Professor of Government Morris P. Fiorina says this election demonstrates voter dissatisfaction with more than the executive branch.

"When institutions aren't operating right, it reflects a lack of consensus in the country," Fiorina says. "The fact is people aren't certain what they want to do."

This shift to a Republican Congress means that President Clinton will no longer have an advantage in planning the nation's legislative program.

Although legislation constitutionally comes from the Congress, since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 the President has proposed a national agenda.

Mickey Edwards, a lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government and former member of Congress from Oklahoma, says the shift in power will return legislative initiative to Congress, where it belongs.

"Legislation is always supposed to come from Congress anyway," Edwards says. "The Republicans are going to determine what is going to be considered, which will be Republican bills generated by Republican members of Congress."

In order for Clinton to succeed and forge workable relationships with Congress, he will need to collaborate with Republicans and form bipartisan coalitions--something which, so far, he has been reluctant to do.

"Bill Clinton is going to have to work with moderate Republicans and forge coalitions across party lines," King says. "He doesn't have the names of moderate Republicans in his rolodex."

Relations between the executive branch and Congress over the next two years are "going to be terrible," predicts Markham Professor of Government H. Douglas Price.

"Once you have a Republican majority, I don't see how he'll get anything through," Price says. "The Republicans running things don't believe in bipartisanship."

One of the consequences of a divided government is gridlock. In 1948, President Harry Truman ran by campaigning against the "do nothing" Congress and prevailed. Given the Republican filibusters at the end of the 103rd Congress, Clinton could adopt a similar strategy and run against the "do nothing" 104th Congress.

But Clinton ran as an activist President and appears unlikely to abandon his agenda. Instead, he will need to radically reform the way he looks at issues.

"It's hard to know if you can increase gridlock," Edwards says. "I think gridlock is merely the people's representatives stopping unpopular legislation from being passed."

But prospects for bipartisanship in the Clinton administration were dealt a serious blow last night, when David Gergen, a senior adviser who previously worked in Republican administrations, offered his resignation, complaining that the administration was not willing to work with Republicans.

Despite the mid-term election results, Clinton still has a chance to win in 1996. If he emerges from the election as an energized consensus-builder, he may be able to rise above the partisan fray. And the burden is now on the Republicans--with a majority in both houses--to legislate the change that the public demands. "There's a lot of time to rewrite history," King says.