The voters have spoken, and what a roar it was. But what, exactly, did it mean?
Two conflicting theories already have emerged in the wake of the most sweeping midterm shake-up since the end of World War II. The first is the most straightforward: Bill Clinton was a fluke, this theory holds, an accidental Democratic President whose election in 1992 temporarily interrupted the maturing of the Republican majority that was born under Richard Nixon, reared under Ronald Reagan and only faltered under George Bush.
The second theory, clung to by White House aides and many other Democrats--but nonetheless more than just a drowning man's imaginary lifeboat--takes a more complex view of the country. It argues that the 1994 election, like that of 1992, was a reaction of voters against a status quo that has failed.
In 1992, proponents of this view argued, Bush became the symbol of that status quo and voters rejected him, turning to Clinton. When Clinton failed to deliver, they argued, the Democratic Congress became the symbol of the gridlock that voters despise, and the electorate vented its fury once more.
If the first theory holds, then nothing Clinton can do over the next two years will avail him much. The Republican tide will not stop at his command.
But if the second theory holds, what then? Can either party make significant progress in just two years against the daunting problems at the root of the nation's discontent--declining incomes for those who lack a college degree, economic uneasiness in the middle class, out-of-control crime rates in many cities and a social fabric pulled to the breaking point? And if neither party can meet those concerns, who will become the target of the voters' wrath next?
The "Clinton was a fluke" theory has the virtue of simplicity. And in the glow of victory, many Republican leaders rushed to embrace it. "Last night the American people endorsed what I believe in," said Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a likely GOP presidential candidate.
Clinton espoused the second view. Voters "were saying, 'Look, we just don't like what we see when we watch Washington, and you haven't done much about that,' " Clinton said at a press conference. "Democrats are in charge; we're holding you accountable."
Supporting that idea, the President's pollster, Stanley B. Greenberg, noted that in polls done immediately before the election, including The Times Poll, voters consistently said that they did not favor many parts of the GOP program. In addition, he noted, studies by the University of Michigan on the popularity of the two parties showed that during the last two years "the Democrats have plummeted, but the Republicans have also dropped. There was no movement toward the Republicans."
Some evidence that voters have not turned to the GOP out of ideology also comes from state-by-state votes on initiatives. Although Republican activists have campaigned heavily against gay rights, for example, the two states with anti-gay-rights initiatives on the ballot, Oregon and Nevada, defeated them. Voters in Wyoming defeated an anti-abortion referendum while electing Republicans to both the governorship and a Senate seat. Voters in several states defeated measures that would have limited future tax increases.
In Arizona, voters rejected an initiative that would have required the state to pay property owners if environmental regulations limited what they could do with their land--another issue heavily promoted by Republicans.
At least some Republican analysts agreed with parts of the Democratic assessment.
"The election was the public finally saying to the Democratic Party: 'You don't get it. We're rejecting you. We're giving the other party a chance,' " said conservative Republican strategist David Keene. "But all they're giving us is a chance."
Depending on which part of the country one examines, election returns and exit polls can support both theories. In the South--the 13 states running from Virginia to Texas--Republicans won the congressional vote by a 3-2 margin, compared with a 54-44 Democratic edge in the region two years ago. The South now is the largest Republican region, providing 28% of the 33 million votes cast for GOP congressional candidates nationwide.
What put the GOP over the top in the South was primarily a set of ideological concerns driving voters oriented toward social issues, according to exit polls analyzed by pollster Andrew Kohut.
The Southern electorate was heavily made up of conservatives, including large numbers of evangelical Christians and supporters of the National Rifle Assn.--both groups that comprised large chunks of Tuesday's electorate. Those conservative, white voters have abandoned longstanding ties to the Democratic Party on the congressional level and, increasingly, in state legislatures as well. And they were clearly motivated by issues such as gun control, abortion, school prayer, gay rights and the whole complex of concerns known to politicians as "family values," the exit polls indicated.
At the same time, the Southern shift is one that has been building for many years. Lyndon B. Johnson, after signing the 1965 Civil Rights Act into law, told aides he feared that he had turned the South over to the Republicans for a generation.
And on the presidential level, he was correct. The once solidly Democratic South has sided with the GOP on presidential voting in nearly all elections since. But loyalties to long-serving congressional Democrats had delayed a similar switch on the congressional level until this year.
Before this election, out of 137 House seats in the Southern states, the GOP held 52. Now they will hold either 73 or 74, depending on the outcome of a still-contested election in Kentucky. White Democrats, by contrast, will hold only 40 or 41 seats, while Democrats representing majority black (or in Texas, Latino) districts will hold 23.
In the Senate, the GOP held 12 Southern seats out of 26 before Tuesday's voting; now they will hold 16.
Over the next few elections, the number of Southern white Democrats can be expected to decline even more as old-time representatives such as G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery in Mississippi, Tom Bevill in Alabama and Sam Gibbons in Florida retire and, almost certainly, turn their seats over to Republicans. The region increasingly will be represented by Republicans from majority-white districts and Democrats from majority-minority districts.
"There's a declining market for conservative Democrats," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta. Given the choice between a Republican and a conservative Democrat, white Southerners now consistently chose Republicans, Black said.
The GOP edge in the South has changed the complexion of the party. Southern members now will make up about a third of the Republican caucus in both the House and Senate. Those Southern Republicans have a deeply conservative, anti-government voice and they have given the party many of its newer leaders--from Speaker-presumptive Newt Gingrich of Georgia to Gramm in Texas.
Indeed, the center of gravity of the GOP, which was located in the Northeast and Midwest during Dwight D. Eisenhower's day and moved to the Southwest and Southern California under Nixon and Reagan, has now shifted southeast.
The Reagan-era shift toward the Sun Belt, with its large and powerful defense and aerospace industries, presaged a change in the GOP's emphasis--putting increased defense spending at the top of the party's agenda. Just so, the shift toward the Old South, with its large number of voters motivated by social issues, likely will push those topics forward.
Advancing those issues, however, could cause the GOP problems with the other major source of its upsurge this year: economically discontented voters, who were particularly important to Republican gains in the Midwest.
The voting in the Midwest would support Clinton's view of the election results. Republicans there gained heavily among lower-income, non-college-educated white working men under the age of 50--precisely the people who have seen their incomes decline in the last two decades and who, as a result, have grown cynical about government and impatient with politicians. But polls have shown that they also have little patience with social conservatives and issues such as abortion.
Perhaps because of the potential for a sharp split between Southern and Midwestern supporters, GOP officials Wednesday took pains to limit their agenda--saying virtually nothing about social issues, for example, as they described what they hope to do now. Instead, they emphasized items with little opposition, such as term limits or requiring Congress to live under the laws it imposes on others.
Those issues are at the top of very few voters' lists of priorities. But they have the virtue of drawing broad--if not passionate--support across the national spectrum. And for many Republicans, that is reason enough to push them.
"This (election) is not a mandate for everything we're doing," said Republican pollster William McInturff. "This is a mandate saying 'We don't like the other guys.' "
"All parties over-interpret their mandates," he warned. "Parties tend to go to extremes."
Times political writers Robert Shogan and Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.
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