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A Vote Against Politics

THE results of the midterm elections were decisive, but not really clear. It was a strong vote against big government, and against traditional American liberalism, or what was left of it, anyway.

It was also a vote - a naive vote, we must insist - against politics, against politicians, and against political process generally. This should be troubling to supporters of both parties.

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It is not at all clear what this was a vote for. The Republicans, now in control of both houses of Congress and three-fifths of the governor's mansions, will have to show what their agenda is. The Republicans' ``Contract With America'' is more useful as a statement of values than a legislative program. And Republicans are unlikely to undo existing government programs.

A number of members of the Clinton administration are said to be reading the David McCullough biography of Harry Truman and taking comfort in the parts dealing with the Republican-controlled Congress resulting from the 1946 elections.

The Congress fought Truman and stymied his plans again and again - and then in 1948, Truman was able to run against a ``do-nothing'' Congress and win. But Clinton and his team should not be too eager to seize on this scenario as a predictor of their own future. It's not that running against a do-nothing Congress in 1996 would be the way for Clinton to renew his lease on the White House: A do-nothing Congress may be just what the people want.

Careful though we must be with phrase like ``new era,'' the tectonic plates of American politics are shifting. At other periods, there has been a clear consensus on what the issues were. Political differences had to do with different ideas about how to address those issues. But who can find a consensus on the issues today?

George Bush was defeated in 1992 by a presidential aspirant who claimed to represent change, but his successor has taken a beating by Republicans claiming that they represent the change the people really want. As a basically centrist Democrat (albeit one perceived as a liberal) President Clinton has had to fight on both the left and the right. His achievements - such as passage of the the North American Free Trade Agreement, deficit reduction - have tended to be on his right; the debacles - handling of the issue of gays in the military, some of his appointments - have tended to be on the left.

The divisive partisanism of the last few years is a concern. Newt Gingrich may, alas, be more attuned to the spirit of the times than the judiciously bipartisan Thomas Foley, whom he looks to be succeeding as Speaker.

But it may be that working with a Republican Congress brings out the best in the Clinton administration.

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