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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Washington in Turmoil

The bad news for the Democrats is that the Republican seizure of the U.S. Congress, for the first time in 40 years, is also the century's biggest repudiation of a new president in his first midterm elections. Historically, at least, President Bill Clinton has been shamed. And the Democrats' longstanding control of the House of Representatives has been shattered.


The bad news for the Republicans is that their big triumph comes at a volatile, angry time in which the electorate is at your throat just 12 to 18 months after they were at your feet. Public disdain for Washington and the Clinton administration has put the Republican Party, or GOP, in a position where it has to deliver -- and probably won't be able to. The era of long cycles of party predominance is over.


Contemporary U.S. politics involves an ever shorter affection span before voters turn sour. George Bush was the first victim. Then Clinton crashed even faster. He has now led congressional Democrats to the worst bloodbath for a party in its first midterms since 1922 -- when the newly elected GOP of the Harding administration lost eight seats in the Senate and 76 in the House. But Clinton did even worse -- because unlike Warren G. Harding he cost his party majorities in both houses.


Not only will voters give the new GOP Congress just 12 months or so to prove itself -- but the GOP's precedents are poor. Until now, the GOP had not won both the Senate and House against a Democratic president since 1946 -- and the 80th Congress elected in 1946 was so untested and extreme that Democratic President Harry Truman fought it with vetoes and came out a surprise winner. In 1948, Truman not only got re-elected, he knocked Republicans out of control of both houses of Congress.


Voter volatility also represents a major problem for the GOP. The party's latest success has a precarious base in relatively low voter turnout and in unprecedented disillusionment with the two-party system. This is a weak framework for building new politics.


Cautious strategists on both sides favor the Democratic president and the Republican Congress pursuing a mutual strategy of conciliation and compromise. But this seems implausible. Many of the new GOP House members are conservative stalwarts, little disposed to compromise -- although tactics will oblige both sides to talk about bipartisanship for six months to establish their bona fides for the coming combat.


In fact, there might no longer be a "vital center,'' as historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. put it 50 years ago. Instead, we have an "Interest-Group Center,'' where the GOP, funded by Washington-based lobbies and special interests, overlaps with Democrats who get contributions from the same sources.


Arguably, this interest-group structure is now more important than the party structures. Critics such as Jesse Jackson assert "interest-group centrism'' now dominates a Democratic Party that used to respond to ordinary-voter constituencies and that this is one reason for the party's weakness. Liberals are likely to level similar charges if Clinton does attempt a broad compromise toward Republican positions. Truman in '48 was better off fighting, they will say, and Clinton would be, too.


Neither party, moreover, has come to grips with the essence of the 1992 Perot vote, which was threefold: (1) an outsider antipathy to Washington and its interests; (2) a sense that middle America was losing the American Dream and; (3) a desire to re-empower ordinary voters through electronic democracy.


Clinton, whose recent remarks revealed more understanding of popular resentment of Washington, has missed his opportunity. But although Perot backers voted Republican on Nov. 8, the GOP commitment may not be much greater.


True, winning GOP congressional candidates mostly backed term limits and the new GOP governors-elect of New York and Pennsylvania supported establishing local initiative procedures, but the new GOP congress will face far greater challenges in enacting serious campaign-finance reform or trying to regulate lobbying. The Republicans are at least as closely tied to special interests as the Democrats, and pseudo-reform is more likely than the real thing.


There are certain matters that will be critical measurements of Republican success or failure. To begin with, there's the new GOP theology that too much government, not Washington, is the problem.


This, in its way, is as superficial and self-serving as the now-laughable Democratic insistence that gridlock would be solved by having a president and a congress of the same party. The incoming Clintonites didn't want to face up to the real depth of the problem in Washington --the world's greatest concentration of lobbyists, special interests and political courtiers -- and neither does the incoming congress.


The second challenge that neither party will confront involves laying out for the public the nation's overarching economic problems -- a shrinking middle class, declining manufacturing wages, rising debt and a crumbling infrastructure. Republicans and Democrats talk about some of these problems when they are out of power, but once in office, it's back to cliches and reassurances. The public just grows more disillusioned.


If we are in a party-breakdown cycle, any arrangement of White House, Senate and House control is now possible. Instead of January 1995's Democratic White House and GOP Congress, January 1997 might bring a GOP House, a Democratic Senate and an independent president. Indeed, all these developments could feed on each other as the United States moves toward a 21st-century politics where parties play a lesser role and technology-facilitated participatory democracy plays a greater one.





Kevin Phillips is the editor and publisher of American Political Report. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.