The ink has dried on the pundits' assessments of the recent elections. But there may be a few longer-term lessons we can glean from the November 6 ballot:
• Honesty is the best policy. Even in an environment that normally punishes adherence to principle, in this election the most blatantly hypocritical candidates took it on the chin.
Rep. Ron Dyson (D–Md.) became a born-again hawk, thanks to Saddam Hussein. But when Maryland voters found out that Dyson was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam years, he lost to a distinguished veteran.
In March, California gubernatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein noisily rejected negative campaigning. She then launched attack ads against Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and won her primary during the fall campaign. Feinstein took the ultimate cheap shot—portraying Sen. Pete Wilson as a sedated buffoon when he virtually voted from his hospital bed just following an emergency appendectomy.
Feinstein also flip-flopped on the Big Green environmental initiative—attacking the measure until Earth Day, then acting as if she had authored it—and on job quotas for government employees; California voters remembered both of her faces.
Jesse Helms didn't win his fourth Senate term with Bubba's vote alone (even though his legitimate campaign against racial quotas assured him of every racist vote in North Carolina); he won by accurately portraying media darling Harvey Gantt as a glutton for political pork.
Gantt used government programs to get rich by obtaining a broadcasting license and building contracts. Gantt's campaign claimed he could "make government work." Helms agreed: Harvey Gantt could make government work—for Harvey Gantt. Early on, urban, middle-class voters fled from Helms. But by tying Gantt to corruption, Helms cruised to victory, ending up with 46 percent of upwardly mobile Tar Heel votes.
• Listen to the home folks. As Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. Fixation on the Beltway nearly cost Newt Gingrich and Bill Bradley their jobs. Massachusetts voters derailed John Silber's express train to Pennsylvania Ave.
And in North Carolina, when Helms ran his campaign from Washington, Gantt surged ahead. Once Helms focused on his formidable local constituency, Gantt was a goner.
Abortion, the S&L scandal, and other national issues had little impact on the vote—unless they were tied to specific candidates. Rep. Chip Pashayan (R–Calif.) took campaign contributions from Charles Keating and lost. Massachusetts elected a pro-choice Republican governor; Kansas, a pro-life Democrat. But neither campaign focused on abortion.
Election reform? In Florida, Lawton Chiles tells the media he squeaked past Gov. Bob Martinez because he refused campaign contributions larger than $100; Chiles might even believe it. But as Fred Barnes noted in The New Republic, Chiles is a statewide hero. And in 1987, Martinez backed an unpopular services tax that lowered his favorable rating to 15 percent. It's a miracle Martinez was close.
• If there's a huge constituency calling for activist government, it didn't vote on November 6. Nowhere was this more true than in California, where most of the 25 ballot initiatives that promised to increase government power went down in flames.
Big Green lost 2 to 1, getting only 34 percent of the vote. Two other environmental measures garnered less than 40 percent each. Voters approved only 3 of 20 other initiatives calling for new taxes or government bonds. Yet last June, all the bond issues on the primary ballot (raising a total of $5.1 billion) passed.
And while Californians had two chances to enact term limits for the state's elected officials, they rejected the initiative authorizing taxpayer-financed elections. Instead they chose a tougher measure that limited terms, cut legislators' hefty pensions, and slashed legislative staff budgets.
The tax revolt isn't dead, either. Nationwide, tax-limited initiatives fared poorly. But incumbent governors in Nebraska, Kansas, and Florida lost largely because they approved unpopular tax increases. Bill Bradley nearly lost because he wouldn't defend his popular 1986 tax reforms or attack tax-hiking Gov. Jim Florio. Republicans pledged to slash spending in Massachusetts; not only did William Weld defeat John Silber, but the GOP fell only five seats short of a majority in the state legislature.
• Nobody's found the "vision thing" yet. The fair-haired Democrats don't have it. Voters realize that "tax the rich" eventually means "tax everybody."
The GOP is empty-handed as well. Republicans say they're different from Democrats. And some individual Republicans push their own initiatives—Jack Kemp's tenant ownership of public housing, Chris Cox's budget overhaul, John Porter's Social Security reform—but no one has articulated a sweeping plan to cut taxes, reduce spending, deregulate, and privatize. The bully pulpit is vacant.
The Democrats could step into this void before the 1992 presidential election. Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council says that his party must pick a candidate who is on the side of expanding opportunity and not the side of feeding government." Are you listening, Bill Bradley?
One universal bit of punditry is on target: People are disgusted with government in general. Only 36 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, a 50-year low. But if you plan to run in 1992 and interpret this dissatisfaction as a call for new government programs, here's some advice: Don't quit your day job.