Capitol Gain: What Republicans Will Do If They Win the Congress

Article excerpt

Suppose we wake up on the morning of Wednesday, November 9 this year and discover that the Republicans have won. Really won. Say, 40 seats or more in the House and seven or more in the Senate. Suppose, in otherwords, the 104th Congress of the United States has Republican majorities in both chambers. Then what? What difference would GOP control make?

This isn't a completely idle question. By one way of reckoning, opposition parties pick up an average of 18 House seats in the mid-term elections. And there are a number of reasons the GOP might be expected to out-perform that average this November.

The GOP has done exceptionally well in by-elections since November 1992. When he took over as party chairman, Haley Barbour insisted that the Republican National Committee would focus on 1994 and the contests leading up to it, not on the presidential election in 1996. So far, from the Republican point of view, so good - a Senate seat in Texas, a House seat in Oklahoma, another in Kentucky, as well as a number of victories in state and local elections, including the New Jersey and Virginia governorships and the New York City, and Los Angeles mayoralties. Democratic spin doctors have insisted that, all politics being local, it's a mistake to read any national trends into these results. Republicans, on the other hand, have suggested that the results reflect broader disenchantment with the president and traditional Democratic Party solutions to national problems.

The president is personally unpopular. President Clinton took office having won with 43 percent of the vote, which is hardly a majority, but is slightly higher than the percentage Richard Nixon garnered in 1968. Still, Clinton's approval ratings early in his term were unprecedentedly low, and they have remained low. Two major scandals, Whitewater and Troopergate, have yet to play out fully, with the potential for further erosion in his support. Moreover, the public reception to his major policy initiatives (his so-called S500 billion deficit reduction plan, health care) has formed a pattern: an initial burst of enthusiasm that relatively quickly dissipates, then mounting opposition. This is the mark of poor salesmanship or a poor product, maybe both. If all of this continues, GOP has all opportunity to the extent that a local candidate can be portrayed as a Clinton surrogate.

Congress is unpopular. Polls indicate near-record levels of distrust, and support for term limits remains high (even if they are constitutionally problematic). The Politburo-like reelection percentages of the past, reflecting the advantages of incumbency, are gone. Even primary, challenges are a problem for incumbents, not only because they sometimes succeed, but even when they fail: They can be expensive and they may draw blood, which can weaken a candidate in the general election. The 103rd Congress has 110 new members, a turnover of more than 25 percent. Turnover for the 104th Congress - owing to retirement, primary loss or a decision to seek other office - as of this writing already stands at 47.

Republicans have so far been unable to lay the nation's problems at the door of the Democratic leadership or the Democratic majority of Congress. Nor have they been successful blaming the dominance of one party for such congressional scandals as check-kiting and illegality at the House Post Office. Republicans had high hopes for a specifically anti-democratic backlash, but it has failed to materialize in any significant way in the polls. What has taken hold, however, is the notion that a scandal-ridden Congress isn't properly dealing with the nation's problems. And even if all incumbent members of the House and Senate who are facing the voters this term feel its effects equally, that's a net loss for the current majority.

The freshman class is huge. As 1986 took its toll on the weaker members of the crop of GOP senators elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide, so may 1994 take its highest toll upon weaker representatives as well as those least adept at discerning and exploiting the advantages of incumbency. …