I love doing a column just after an election because I can always write it with 20/20 hindsight. It’s amazing how much smarter we all are after the election is over. If I wrote this column two weeks ago, it would have been filled with hedging. But not now. Now it all seems amazingly clear and simple, and I can’t understand why so many politicians spent millions going in the wrong direction.
For example, just after the national vote came in, there they were, Newt & Co., spinning their story like mad, claiming victory. Was he right? I guess we can say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, he was wrong, because three days later he was gone. The Republican Party made its own very personal judgment, and it was harsh, but it was very clear, and it illuminated one of the laws of politics.
Law #1: You had better win, or keep your bags packed.
Which leads into the second basic law of politics.
Law #2 — The law of unintended consequences: No matter how smart you are and how careful you poll and focus group and plan, you simply can never be sure about what’s going to bite you in the backside. If you had told Newt the Monica strategy would end with him being pushed out of the speakership and Clinton still standing, I’m sure he would have laughed.
Which leads to Law #3.
Law # 3: Every successful election has within it the seeds of its own destruction next time. It’s one of those things that makes democracy interesting. For example, in 1994, the Christian Right was instrumental in the Republicans taking over the House. Then, they refused to broaden their base. After all, why should they? They won. They dug their heels in despite evidence that unless you keep the moderate Republicans in the tent and pick up the independent voters, you can’t win, particularly in swing states like California. In a state like California, that means “Choice” and “Pro Environment” and this year a strong emphasis on “Education.” They wouldn’t budge and lost ground this time.
But it certainly didn’t take them long to figure it out. I must admit I’m impressed by how quickly the Republicans have acted. Nationally, many of them love and respect Newt, but once they realized he was a liability, he was gone. In California, where they lost five assembly seats, the minority leader, Leonard, quit or was pushed, and they brought in not George Runner, a conservative Christian Coalition assemblyman, but opted instead for a pro-choice, Hispanic, ex-prosecutor, Rod Pacheco, which, in my opinion, was a very smart move. I must admit they have jettisoned excess baggage a lot faster then the Democrats ever did. We hung with McGovern and his progeny for years and got our brains beat out every time.
Law # 4: Americans in general are moderates, and Californians in particular tend to shy away from extremism of any stripe. We tend to vote for the moderate candidates or at least for the people who make the most convincing arguments that they are moderates. Sometimes the arguments are more moderate then the candidates, but that’s politics.
I’ll make some predictions. There is a knock-down fight coming for the soul of both parties because both are in transition. In the Republican Party, the traditional Republicans who believe in less government are going to clash mightily with the socially conservative Republicans who really believe in big government provided it follows their agenda.
The Democrats, on the other hand, swept in on their traditional block of labor, minorities, gender support and gays, plus candidates who were generally moderate enough to still attract the white middle class without scaring off their base. Strangely enough, I believe the entire Monica episode so polarized the Democratic voters that they stopped arguing with each other and actually worked together, which for Democrats is a minor miracle.
It remains to be seen which party is more flexible and gets to keep the middle for a while. The Democrats did it in the election, but the Republicans have responded very competitively, and now the ball is back in the Democratic court.
It will be interesting to watch.