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Mining for Meaning

Politic M. Bodied

By Rustin C. Silverstein

I've always suspected that dentists and child psychiatrists were behind the Halloween craze with its manic encouragement of candy-eating and anti-social behavior by kids. Similarly, I believe that the eastern media punditocracy is responsible for the irregularly-timed, odd year elections that we experienced again Tuesday.

The TV talking heads and newspaper smart-guys love having something to talk and write about between the even-year Presidential and Congressional elections. After all, is it just a coincidence that the three major odd-year elections --the mayoral contest in New York and the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia--all occur in the backyards of the major national media hubs of Washington and New York?

(This year they even scored a bonus with the addition of special election to fill the open House seat in New York City vacated by Republican Rep. Susan Molinari.)

After they've exhausted their coverage of the horse race aspect of these elections, a favorite pastime of these media politicos is to divine greater national trends from their outcomes. As is often the case with unscientific, morning-after analysis, the frenzy of political prognostication that follows election day yields a mixed-bag of accuracy.

In 1989, the victories of David Dinkins in New York City, Douglas Wilder in Virginia, and Jim Florio in New Jersey seemed to spell trouble for then-President Bush and the Republicans. Maybe so, but an economic downturn before the '92 election didn't hurt either. Additionally, Dinkins' and Wilder's wins led many to announce a fundamental shift in white voters' acceptance of African-American candidates. Unfortunately, no evidence of a national trend in this direction ever appeared and these two winners of yesterday now reside in 'Where are the now?' obscurity.

Four years later in 1993, Republicans swept all three positions and led the oracles to warn of rough waters ahead for the new Democratic President and his fellow Democrats. The failure of Clinton's health care plan in 1995 and the subsequent GOP conquest of Capitol Hill in the mid-term elections seemed to verify this trend. But, it was also predicted that the victories of the moderate Rudolph Giuliani and Christine Todd Whitman would spur a rush back to the center for the Republican Party after their 1992 losses under the conservative banner. (If the infamous House Republicans and the '96 GOP Presidential candidates are any guide, this was certainly not the case).

To continue in this tradition of mining for national significance in these contests and risking getting burned in the process, here's my take on Tuesday's results:

To begin, here's a new flash: Tuesday was a very good day for Republicans. In heavily-Democratic New York City, Giuliani became the first Republican since Fiorello LaGuardia in 1937 to be re-elected mayor. Newcomer Vito Fossella's victory continued the GOP's hold on Molinari's seat (held by her father before her). Jim Gilmore maintained the Virginia Gubernatorial seat for Republicans with a 16-point victory over his Democratic rival. And, national GOP star Whitman managed to eke out a narrow and remain as New Jersey Governor for another four years.

These victories reveal that Clinton's curse continues. As much as the "Comeback Kid" has been able to survive and win his own political battles, he has failed to win the war of building a solid Democratic governing coalition. Congressional and gubernatorial candidates have fared poorly throughout his term. The Democratic losses on Tuesday (especially in New Jersey and Virginia) came despite the active support of their President and despite his high approval ratings. Clearly, this is not a good sign for Democrats in next year's Congressional elections.

Additionally, the socially conservative and tax-cutting factions of the Republican party can rejoice at Tuesday's results. Whitman's uphill struggle to rally conservatives behind her pro-choice, pro-gay rights campaign may force future moderate Republican candidates to think twice before alienating that crucial bloc of support. Likewise, Gilmore's victory in Virginia on the wings of his anti-auto tax pledge proves that when it comes to exploiting taxpayer discontent, nobody beats the GOP.

Despite this bad news, there are some silver linings to this dark cloud for Democrats. As Clinton pointed out in his post-election comments, the success of incumbents on Tuesday reflected a voter satisfaction with the status quo. While this may not signal big Democratic gains next year, it might prevent a repeat of the bloodbath of 1995.

Secondly, although victory was not to be had, the Democrats can take pride in making the Republicans work for what should have been easy wins. As Democratic Party National Chair Steve Grossman commented, "These races were uphill battles for us--the Staten Island congressional seat is a Molinari family heirloom, Christie Whitman is the darling of the national Republican Party, and Republicans have an 11 percent advantage over us in party identification in Virginia. Yet we still gave the Republicans a run for their money."

And the Republicans were not tight with that money. Fossella in New York and Whitman in New Jersey each received over $750,000 worth of party-sponsored issue ads to support their campaigns. Gilmore and the rest of the Virginia GOP ticket received over $2 million from the national party. (Bonus points to the first one to figure out why the Republicans killed campaign finance reform.)

Additionally, the re-election of pseudo-Republicans Giuliani and Whitman over lightweight challengers does not imply any repudiation of core Democratic beliefs.

Likewise, although he later recovered with his anti-auto tax mantra, Gilmore faced some rough going early on over the abortion issue--proving that it remains an albatross around the neck of many pro-life candidates in their efforts to cut into the Democratic advantage with female voters.

Of course, these observations could all be disproved next year of even next month. But, in the great tradition of political pundits, I take solace in knowing that they'll probably be forgotten before I can be held accountable for them anyway.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is The Crimson's political columnist.

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