Am I the only Republican in the country who didn't think the party's showing on November 3rd was a "debacle," a "drubbing," or an "earthquake," to quote three popular descriptions? I can see why the Democrats were happy; after all, they survived a near-death experience and are entitled to feel enormous relief. But why should a party that recaptured the House (losing five seats), held onto the Senate (with no net loss at all), and carried every major governorship in the country save California (about which more later), be regarded, and indeed regard itself, as a basket case?
Probably the expectations had a lot to do with it. Pundits pointed out that in off-year elections the party out of power gains, on average, about 24 House seats. Why didn't the Republicans do this? That question overlooks the fact that in 1994 the Republicans gained 52 seats, and held on to almost all of them in 1996, despite Clinton's re-election. Averaging the results of the 1994 and 1998 elections, the net gain per year is almost exactly 24. To expect that the GOP could win 52 seats in 1994 and then pile another 24 on top of them in 1998 was preposterous. Yet for failing to do so, the party is being scored as a huge loser.
About California (where I live): The Democrats really did do well here, holding onto both branches of the Legislature, re-electing Sen. Barbara Boxer, and electing almost (not quite) all statewide officers, most notably Gray Davis as governor. But don't forget that the GOP had held the governorship for the past 16 years the same 16 years during which Helmut Kohl held the chancellorship of Germany. In a democracy, the pendulum swings.
And incidentally, don't assume the Democrats can easily gerrymander themselves into 10 or 12 new House members from California after the 2000 census. They can try, and lose in the courts as they did 10 years ago. (It may be relevant that six of the seven members of the California Supreme Court were appointed by the outgoing Republican governor, Pete Wilson.)
But what has really put the maraschino cherry on the sundae, as far as I am concerned, is Newt Gingrich's immensely wise and statesmanlike decision to step down as speaker. It can't be said often enough that he is a brilliant man, and that he almost single-handedly engineered the historic "Republican Revolution" of 1994. But the very quality that enabled him to do that a certain roughhouse abrasiveness made him an irresistible and highly vulnerable target as speaker. A number of fresh faces in the congressional Republican leadership is exactly what the party needs now. Henceforth all those shells the Democrats lobbed at Gingrich are yesterday's guano.
But if the election results are being widely misinterpreted, can't the Democrats at least rejoice that they have put the Lewinsky scandal, and the threat of President Clinton's impeachment and removal, behind them? Didn't the election returns at least mandate that?
Well, no, not exactly. I think it is clear that most people, rightly or wrongly, don't want Clinton removed from office for much of his misconduct that has, up to now, come to light. But the pollsters have steered clear of asking them whether they believe he should be let off scot-free if he, the nation's chief law enforcement officer, is clearly shown to have committed perjury before a federal grand jury especially while 115 convicts are in federal prisons for the same crime (in some cases, perjury about sex). I think the vast majority of the American people believe that, in that case, Clinton should suffer some punishment short of removal, and I suspect the congressional Democrats are going to be very reluctant to disagree.
The devil, as usual, is in the details. A congressional censure is probably unconstitutional (not to mention unwise, for the precedent it would set), and so is a fine. In a plea bargain, Clinton might waive those objections, but there's a respectable body of opinion that insists constitutional rights can't be waived. How about simply deferring prosecution until his term is over? Somehow, some penalty will be hammered out.