Commentary: Message To Newt: The Center Is Holding

Karen Cassidy, a Louisville (Ky.) college nursing professor, entered the voting booth on Nov. 7 with a pointed agenda. "The Republicans set a harsh tone nationally," she says. "I don't want Kentucky to follow that."

Republican Revolutionaries, take note. Off-year election returns from Maine to Mississippi spell trouble ahead for the GOP in its quest for political dominance. Centrist voters abandoned the party in droves, thanks largely to the Democrats' success in portraying House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the Mad Slasher of Capitol Hill. Frets Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.): "We are being labeled too extremist, and [the leadership] had better figure out a way to deal with that."

It won't be easy. In the suburbs, normally solid GOP terrain, many swing voters were turned off by what they consider an extreme Republican social agenda. And in some increasingly Republican Southern states, Democrats capitalized on middle-class moderates' fears that the GOP will gore Medicare, school lunches, and student loans.

PAYING THE PRICE? The shift of the centrists was most evident in state legislative races. Democrats won two special elections in Maine to regain control of the House, narrowed a commanding GOP lead in the New Jersey Assembly by three seats, and ousted Mississippi's Republican lieutenant governor. Moreover, Democrats withstood GOP crusades to capture the Mississippi and Virginia legislatures for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrats even captured the local government in Virginia's wealthy Fairfax County, where GOP religious conservatives were pushing an agenda that included the teaching of creationism in public schools. "The Republicans are paying a growing price for what they're doing," says White House pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.

Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour points out that the GOP managed to preserve its majority in New Jersey's statehouse, and Kentucky voters came within a whisker of electing their first Republican governor in 28 years. But look how Democrats salvaged the election. Instead of attacking GOP gubernatorial nominee Larry Forgy, the opposition mounted a savage television ad campaign that featured grainy photos of a demonic-looking Gingrich. "They were saying, `Send a message to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans,"' says Forgy pollster David Hill.

National polls echo the sentiments heard in Kentucky. A Nov. 2-4 survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm in Alexandria, Va., found that 28% of voters strongly disapprove of Congress, in contrast to 24% who are strong Clinton critics. Gingrich in particular is a lightning rod: A preelection poll by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia, Md., found that Kentucky voters preferred Clinton over Gingrich, 50% to 36%. And the President is not exactly a beloved figure.

FRUSTRATION. If Gingrich hopes to expand his power base, he had better make some significant adjustments. First, tone down the harsh rhetoric. The public wants its political leaders to sound reasonable, not like guerrilla fighters. That may mean containing party hard-liners who oppose issues that enjoy broad public support--abortion rights, gun control, and environmental protection. Finally, voters want policy gridlock to be replaced by an honest search for consensus. So Gingrich and Clinton have to stop sparring over the GOP balanced-budget plan and agree to sit down to hammer out a compromise.

The rap on the knuckles that voters gave Republicans on Election Day should be an instructive lesson for a vacillating President Clinton and liberal Hill Democratic leaders as well: After kicking out a Republican President in 1992 and a Democratic Congress two years later, the public is ready to throw the bums out again until it finds the sensible centrism neither party seems to be able to deliver.


Election results in four key states:

KENTUCKY Democrats successfully made the gubernatorial race a referendum on Newt Gingrich's "extreme" agenda. There's hope for Clinton in a few Southern states.

MISSISSIPPI Republican Governor Kirk Fordice won reelection over a moderate Democrat, but the GOP failed to wrest control of the legislature, long a Democratic bastion.

NEW JERSEY Democrats did pick up three seats, but GOP Governor Christine Todd Whitman still has a big Republican majority in the state legislature.

VIRGINIA Suburban backlash against the conservative Republican social agenda kept the legislature in Democratic hands despite an expensive GOP effort financed in part by the national party and corporate interests.

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