Lost Causes


Some of the Republican party's biggest losers this election day weren't on the ballot: Pat Robertson, Pete Wilson, and William Weld.

November 3 was, most obviously, a very bad day for the Christian right. After more than 12 years of significant influence in the Republican party, they finally scared the bejeezus out of suburban America. Instead of valuable allies, they became liabilities for Republican candidates.

In California, every congressional candidate outside Orange County who received money from the religious right lost, even in "safe" Republican districts. Barbara Keating-Edh, for instance, has spent her career opposing Naderite product and environmental regulation, arguing that free markets best represent consumer interests. She is not exactly famous for her stand on abortion or prayer in the schools. But in her congressional race, she became "the candidate of the religious right." Originally favored to win, she lost by two points.

And in suburban Virginia, Henry Butler—a libertarian Republican who beat Robertson's candidate in the primary—found himself under attack simply for trying to woo votes at a Christian Coalition meeting and for opposing tax-subsidized abortions. In a close race, the hint of a tie to the Robertson right (and the distraction of defending himself against those allegations) proved disastrous. Butler lost with 48 percent of the vote.

Somehow this year, America saw conservatives the way liberals have long wanted them to—as coercive utopians. Maybe it was because the smarmy Robertson, who overtly craves political power, has replaced the pastorly Jerry Falwell, who always seemed primarily a spiritual leader. Maybe it was because the Gulf War brought fundamentalist Islam into American living rooms and reminded women, in particular, why theocracy is bad for their rights.

But it was probably just good press—the kind most political groups lust after. During the Republican convention, the networks told America that the Robertson right was powerful and influential. Reporters broadcast a slice of the convention that was heavy on culture warriors and women-as-mothers, light on supply-siders and women-as-trade-representatives. They made abortion the number one issue.

The coverage was slanted, terribly so, but it was a slant the Christian right encouraged. As a result, the Houston Republicans looked a lot like the old San Francisco Democrats—blaming America first, portraying the country as evil, asking voters to hate themselves and their neighbors. That's the way you lose elections, and for very good reasons.

But if election day was hard on the religious right, it was equally bad for some of their sworn enemies. No one was more humiliated than California Gov. Pete Wilson, a man who has spent the last four years smearing fiscally conservative opponents with the Christian right label.

By any measure, Wilson lost big time. A Los Angeles Times exit poll put his approval rating at a mere 28 percent. His welfare- and budget-reform initiative lost 57 percent to 43 percent. People thought it would give the governor too much power.

And the man Wilson appointed to succeed him as senator, John Seymour, proved a pathetic candidate—George Bush without the charisma. Like Wilson, Seymour is a "moderate" who, lacking any positive platform, had to fall back on divisive TV commercials linking immigrants and crime. But fear didn't sell.

Seymour's defeat might not have made Wilson look so bad if it hadn't been for the contrast with "extremist" Bruce Herschensohn. Herschensohn is everything Wilson and Seymour aren't—a principled "constitutionalist" who actually talks about the proper role of government and an inclusive free-market man who actually supports immigration. Herschensohn lost by 5 points, Seymour by 17.

Finally, voters had a message for the new school of "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" Republicans who love environmental and civil-rights regulation: Let us mind our own business. Bill Clinton would be wise to listen up, too.

From Maine to California, Americans turned down new regulations and repealed old ones—from mandatory health benefits to cancer warning labels. In Massachusetts, voters rejected by a nearly 2-to-1 margin an environmental measure strongly backed by self-described "libertarian" Gov. William Weld. It would have required every package used in the state to be "reusable at least five times,…reduced in size by at least 25% every five years,…recycled at a 50% rate or composed of 25% or more recycled materials."

The measure's goal was to create greater markets for recycled materials. But for anyone who bought or sold any packaged good in Massachusetts—from soap to office supplies to machine parts—it was a compliance nightmare. The record keeping alone would have cost millions of dollars. Voters saw it for the wasteful central planning it was and opted to keep Massachusetts's struggling economy on a more market-driven footing.

On gay rights, voters seemed consistently anti-regulation. By a substantial margin, they rejected Oregon's Measure 9, which would have amended the state constitution to declare homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse"—making anti-gay bias the law. But in Colorado and a number of cities, propositions to repeal local anti-discrimination laws passed.

To gay-rights supporters, the Colorado vote in particular looks like a win for bigotry. The measure's sponsors were, certainly, anti-gay. But lifting anti-discrimination laws is not the same as mandating discrimination—by either the state or private citizens. And the margin of victory came from voters who saw anti-discrimination laws not as statements of equal rights but as guarantees of special privileges. These swing voters were anti-regulation, not anti-gay.

None of this is to suggest either that the majority is always right or that the American electorate has suddenly swerved from its historic pragmatism to adopt even a vague libertarianism. In the face of Bill Clinton's victory, even if seen as George Bush's loss, such conclusions would be the height of stupidity.

Americans still expect too much from government. But respect for convictions and for private life—whether religious, moral, sexual, or economic—also runs deep in our character. This election affirmed that respect. And for those who care more for principle and policy than party or personality, that is good news.