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What voters can expect after Tuesday's elections

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

From Tallahassee to Washington, for better or worse, the Republicans have a lock on the executive and legislative branches of government. That means they can advance their conservative agenda, but it also means they will be held accountable for their excesses. They should proceed with caution. They have been given an opportunity to show that they can address the nation's problems -- not an ideological mandate. The fact is that Congress remains closely divided, and it's going to require compromise by Republicans and Democrats to push boulders up Capitol Hill.

At least this time the Republicans are not calling their historic midterm election gains a "revolution." Perhaps they have learned a lesson from their last revolution, the 1994 rout that gave the GOP majority control of both the House and the Senate and crowned Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. For a time Gingrich acted as if he were co-president with Bill Clinton. It didn't take long for Republicans, overbearing and over-reaching, to provoke a public backlash and for Gingrich to self-destruct.

Trent Lott, about to reclaim the title of Senate majority leader, acknowledged that he had made mistakes his first time around in that position and promised to do better. But he's talking about a change in style, not in substance. He left little doubt that Republicans are going to take advantage of their majority to advance an agenda Democrats have blocked in recent years.

They want to move quickly on President Bush's first priority -- creation of a Department of Homeland Security. Democrats stalled the bill because it reduced civil service protections for 177,000 federal employees, and they paid a price for their obstruction at the polls. After delivering for the president on homeland security, the Republicans will turn their attention to confirming Bush's judicial nominees (look for U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist to announce his resignation soon), making the Bush tax cuts permanent, enacting a ban on partial-birth abortions, weakening environmental laws, pressing for tort reform, including a cap on medical malpractice awards, and passing a limited prescription drug plan to be administered by private insurers.

It's not clear this is what voters were asking for in Tuesday's elections, but this is what they're likely to get.

* * *

Every time Democrats go down for the count, they somehow manage to pick themselves up and fight again, mainly because when Republicans are in charge they lurch too far to the right. I wouldn't write the Democratic Party's political obituary just yet. Remember, after Ronald Reagan buried Walter Mondale in a landslide in 1984, Democrats fell into deep despair and blamed Mondale for destroying the party of FDR and Harry Truman. But out of the '84 wreckage rose the Democratic Leadership Council -- the home of the "New Democrats" who promised to reconnect their party with new ideas and the political center. The centrists have had greater success in presidential politics than congressional politics. Bill Clinton, a founding member of the DLC, led Democrats out of the wilderness, showed them how to blur party differences on such issues as welfare reform and held the White House for two terms.

The Democratic Party still has a heartbeat and a faint pulse. It has lost its way and no longer knows what it stands for. It has offered neither ideas nor leadership. But the pendulum keeps swinging, and Democrats will be back some day, except maybe in Florida, where the bells toll for a once-proud party. Meanwhile, those hysterical Democrats who think the country is doomed under George W. Bush and Trent Lott should get a grip on themselves. After all, we survived Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

* * *

Whatever chance Bill McBride may have had of unseating Gov. Jeb Bush was lost in their final debate. The first-time candidate refused to engage in mock debates in preparation for the real thing, as some of his campaign aides had urged him to do. He thought he could wing it, and he did. By the end of the debate, McBride had burned his biscuits.

He had no credible answer to questions about how he would pay for his ambitious education agenda, including smaller class sizes, and by the end of the debate, Bush had turned his challenger's education plan into a tax issue. McBride never recovered.

That was not McBride's only mistake. He surrounded himself with political amateurs. He fired his campaign manager, Robin Rorapaugh, after his stunning primary victory over Janet Reno and replaced her with an official of the Florida teachers' union who had little campaign experience. That move only reinforced the perception that the McBride campaign was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the union.

"I think the world of Bill, but he was a very difficult candidate to manage," Rorapaugh told the Palm Beach Post. "He doesn't like to be told "no,' " and one of the jobs of a campaign is to tell the candidate what he must do to win."

The McBride campaign finale was a humdinger. To excite the Democratic base in South Florida, he brought in Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who were joined by Jesse Jackson -- three prominent symbols of what ails the modern Democratic Party.

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