A Republican Mandate? Not!

Jesse Alan Gordon, November 16, 1994

Okay, okay, we've got a Republican Senate and a Republican House. I'm starting to get used to the idea. But I've been listening to all the commentators talk about how "America is turning to the Right," and I just don't see it. Maybe it's because the commentators are all either Republicans or Democrats, so they have to conclude that this election meant one thing or another for their party. I'm a libertarian-leaning independent, which means I have no interest in promoting or defending either major party, so perhaps my viewpoint is less biased than partisan commentators. I'd like to suggest that America voted against incumbency and against government, and that this election has nothing to do with a "turn to the Right."

I agree with the commentators that this election indicates a deep dissatisfaction with Clinton and with the Democratic Party. But how much of the Republican vote was "for" the Republican candidates, as opposed to being "against" the Democrats? If the vote for the Republicans was really just a vote against the Democrats, then this election was not the "mandate" for conservatism that is much touted in the press. Since there are only two choices in the voting booth, we cannot distinguish what the voters meant. The commentators have assumed that the election results indicate a vote for conservatism, while I assume that it meant a vote against liberalism.

I have always wondered what the vote would be if we could cast a vote either "for" or "against" a candidate. For instance, in the 1992 election, I very much wanted Bush out of office, so I voted for Clinton. Given the choice, I would have preferred to cast my vote against Bush, and not vote for Clinton at all. If we all had that choice, I suspect that the count would have been something like: Bush 15 million for, 30 million against; Clinton 20 million for, 25 million against; Perot 5 million for, 5 million against. Clinton still would have won (or Perot, God forbid, depending on how the counting worked). Both major candidates would have had a net negative vote, because in that election, I think most Americans voted like I did, against what they perceived as the lesser of two evils. A voting scheme with both "for" and "against" would have distinguished whether the 1994 election was a mandate for conservatism or against liberalism.

In the standard world view of the press, the country is divided into two opposites along a one-dimensional spectrum, and a vote for conservatism is identical to a vote against liberalism. I would like to propose that most Americans do not share that world view; i.e., that we distinguish more subtle differences than a simplistic "left-right" spectrum. This election was indeed a vote against liberalism, as is claimed, but it was not a vote for conservatism. Let me describe three results in this election as evidence for this statement. They are three votes on which I was on the winning side (pretty unusual for me!) and I think that all the political commentators have missed the point of why I voted the way I did. Since my vote is now officially representative of how six million fellow citizens of Massachusetts feel, I would like to explain where the commentators are all wrong.

Term limits won as a referendum question in Massachusetts and in five other states. I voted for it, although I know that it's probably unconstitutional and will likely be overturned by the Supreme Court. I voted for it to send a message to Congress that we're tired of the same ol' stuff, that we think government is doing poorly and that we blame Congress. Millions of others, despite recognizing that it would never become reality, voted to send the same message. That's a message against Republicans as well as against Democrats.

Our Governor, Republican William Weld, handily won re-election. He campaigned heavily on a death-penalty plank, and claimed a mandate for the death penalty (a Republican issue) by his huge victory. But anti-death penalty candidates won in districts that voted for Weld, so that theory doesn't hold up. If Massachusetts really were turning conservative, we would have rallied to his death-penalty call. We did not -- it's a non-issue with most voters. I voted for Weld because we have a heavily Democratic state legislature and I want a counter-voice. I would never vote for the death penalty. My vote for Weld was a vote against the Democrat-controlled legislature, rather than for any Republican campaign plank.

Our Senator, Democrat Ted Kennedy, won in a somewhat tighter race, campaigning mostly on his opponent's shortcomings. I voted for him, too, because I want a strong liberal voice in the Senate to oppose Jesse Helms and the rest of the religious right. I don't agree with Kennedy's liberal views, but I agree even less with Jesse Helms', and Kennedy keeps him balanced. I think that the people of Massachusetts re-elected Kennedy because we recognize that an important balancing perspective in the Senate would be lost if he were voted out of office. My vote for Kennedy was a vote against over-domination of the Senate by ultra-conservatives, rather than a vote for Kennedy's liberal agenda.

The common theme in these three election results is that they were all votes against something rather than for something. In general, I think that this election was a vote against Congress. Since the Democrats controlled Congress, the way to vote against Congress was to vote for Republicans. If the Republicans maintain their hold on Congress and win the White House in 1996, I predict the 1998 mid-term elections will be just as strongly "pro-Democrat" as the 1994 elections were "pro-Republican." The commentators will marvel at how the mood of the country changed so fast, from the right back to the left. But in reality, the mood will be the same: a dissatisfaction with the incumbent party. The "pro-Republican" mood that the commentators see in this election was really "anti-incumbent-party," and a "pro-Democrat" mood in that 1998 scenario would be just as "anti-incumbency." We don't get to vote against things directly, so we voted for Republicans this time -- but the press is grossly misinterpreting the mood of America by portraying that we voted for conservatism in this election.

I will interpret the mood of America by describing my mood -- since all my important votes won, I consider my mood to be representative of America's. I am tired of big government. I don't like government spending my money on defense, and I don't like them spending my money on welfare either. I am tired of the Democrats trying to have government run the economy. I am tired of the Republicans trying to legislate morality. I like "gridlock" a lot. The less Congress does, the better I feel. I thought that the Democrat's health care initiative would have ruined the economy. I thought that the Republican's crime bill ("more prisons" and "more police" is a Republican theme, despite Clinton's participation in it) will do a lot of harm, too. I thought that the crime bill was less damaging than the health initiative, so I figured that Congress passing the crime bill was a decent way to keep them all busy enough to kill the health initiative. If I had my preference, Congress would have adjourned in July and let both bills die. That's where "gridlock" is good -- if the White House is controlled by the other party than the Congress, less gets done, and America is better off. We vote against the party in the White House in mid-term elections (a historical fact) because we like gridlock.

The commentators don't seem to get that -- we want Congress to do less. The press says that Americans have moved consistently toward the right for the last three decades -- I disagree. I think that we have moved consistently toward saying "do less." Reagan promised to do less than Carter, so Reagan won. When we got tired of the immense deficit from what Reagan and Bush did do (defense spending, wasting Congress' time on Pledges of Allegiance, etc.), we voted their party out. The best we can do is vote out the party in power when they start doing too much -- but what we really want is that the party in power does less.

The Republicans claim that they are for smaller government, but we regular Americans know that that's just campaign rhetoric. Electing Republicans doesn't mean smaller government -- it means less government intervention in the economy, maybe, but it means more defense spending, more prison building, more rules about what we can't do in our personal lives, and so on. When the Republicans say "we want to get government off your back," we know that they really mean "we'll put government on a different part of your back."

Before we all conclude that we live in a new conservative era, we should think about why millions of people like me "voted Republican." No, I do not want Republican government -- that was not the message of this election. Yes, I want less government -- that was the message.

All material copyright 1994 by Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Jesse Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 354-2805
E-mail: jesse@webmerchants.com

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