Political Ascents And Descents

I realized," wrote a french aristocrat in her memoirs concerning the unpleasantness of the 1790s, "that the Revolution was inevitable when I noticed that the patissier was putting less butter in the brioches." The gift of discerning large portents in small things is useful in politics. Mark Bernstein demonstrates that with his meticulous analysis of some data that should deepen the depression many Democrats are feeling. And the data might convince today's hyperkinetic Republicans that they have more than just another 18 months to bring the Republic to perfection. Bernstein is a Philadelphia lawyer, but quite pleasant, and remarkably nimble with numbers. He has sifted the voting results from the 1994 House races and has come to the conclusion that the Democrats' prospects for soon recapturing the House are bleak.

Not entirely, of course. But his good news for Democrats can be put succinctly in one sentence: They can regain control of the House in 1996 by gaining 14 seats, and in 1994 there were 19 districts that Democrats lost despite getting at least 48 percent of the vote. Now for the bad news, beginning with this: There are 16 Southern Democrats in the House representing districts that George Bush carried in 1992. And that is just the tip of the dark iceberg in the Democrats' path back to bliss.

Since 1990 Democrats have been losing seats to Republicans, have been winning many seats by declining margins and have been becoming weaker in districts they lose, especially in the parts of the country gaining population fastest. Bernstein expresses their problem with a category he calls "Democratic decline districts." They are districts in which one of four things have occurred: The Democratic vote share has fallen at least 5 percentage points since 1992 or 8 points since 1990; Democrats held the seat in 1992 but lost it in 1994; Democrats did not contest the Seat at all; or they won it with 50 percent or less of the vote. Almost 60 percent of all the 435 districts--257 of them- are Democratic decline districts. Only 52 districts--12 percent--are Democratic ascent districts where Democrats made significant gains in the share of the vote, or ran unopposed. In 157 districts--36 percent--the Democratic share of the vote has declined in two consecutive elections. The Democratic vote has increased in two consecutive elections in only 15 districts (3.4 percent).

Many Democratic decline districts are in the South (for example, 14 of 21 Florida districts, 22 of 30 in Texas, 9 of 11 in Virginia). However, they also include 14 of Ohio's 19 districts, 9 of 16 in Michigan, 12 of 20 in Illinois, 8 of 9 in both Washington and Wisconsin. The Ohio numbers are particularly ominous for the president's re-election plans. Ohio has voted with the winner in eight consecutive presidential elections. In 1992 Clinton narrowly carried it and he may find it indispensable for victory in 1996. In Pennsylvania, another nearly indispensable state for Bill Clinton (he carried it in 1992), there are four districts that Democrats have not contested in two of the last three elections. California is indispensable to Clinton and in 1994 the Democrats' share of the vote increased in only seven of the state's 52 districts. It declined in 26.

If a safe district is defined as one in which the winner received more than 60 percent of the vote, then almost two thirds of all the 435 districts are classified as safe after the 1994 elections. But today, probably for the first time since at least the 1920s, there are more safe Republican districts than safe Democratic districts. In 1994, 32 Republicans but only six Democrats ran unopposed. If an "effectively uncontested district" is one in which the winner received at least 75 percent of the vote, in 1994 Democrats had 33 such districts. But Republicans had 60:

Bernstein's numbers take on added weight when supplemented by some from Rhodes Cook of Congressional Quarterly. He notes that before 1994 the Republicans' national vote total for House seats in midterm elections had never exceeded 28 million. Their total in 1994 was 36.6 million. The growth of nearly one third (9 million) more than their 1990 total has no precedent since the Democrats' surge between 1926 and 1930. And here is a scary thought for Democrats and an intoxicating aspiration for Republicans: Between the 1930 and 1934 midterm elections the Democrats increased their vote 50 percent.

Furthermore, Cook says that in 1994 Republicans outpolled Democrats by 4 million votes in Senate races, 5 million in House races and 7 million in gubernatorial races (73 percent of Americans today live under Republican governors). Republicans out-polled Democrats in every region except the East and in every state with at least 10 electoral votes except Massachusetts. Democrats won more votes than Republicans in only 12 small to medium-size states with a total of just 73 electoral votes. All these numerical indices of the Republican surge are particularly portentous because, as Bernstein says, "Both ascent and decline have their own momentums."

Which is to say, in politics as elsewhere, the rich get richer. Success is self-reinforcing. Politics is a strenuous, generally exhausting, frequently demeaning profession for those who make it a career. Its rewards are less monetary than emotional, which is why for decades Democrats had an advantage in the kind of candidates they attracted. Democrats liked government and had agendas, the pursuit of which they found sufficiently fulfilling to compensate for the rigors and deprivations of the political life. Republicans were disposed, by temperament as well as philosophy, to prefer the private sphere of life.

Today, as Democrats circle their wagons in defense of the indispensability of the Commerce Department, for Pete's sake, the Republican Party is the party of ideas and of people seriously irritated by the status quo. Or, as Bernstein says, "Now the ones on a mission are Republicans." It may seem odd--to Democrats. incomprehensible, even perverse-that Republicans can derive as much emotional income as they do from toiling to diminish the importance of where they are (Washington) and what they do (legislation). And it remains to be seen whether such a mission of diminution can sustain its missionaries through several election cycles. But if it can, they will have pioneered something--the politics of negative ambition.