SINCE 1759

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Republican Gains and Obligations

Published the day after Republicans swept House and Senate majorities for the first time in 40 years in the 1994 mid-terms.

"I need help, folks," said President Clinton during his final, desperate burst of campaigning. He did not get it. The result was a historic shift of power to the Republicans, in Washington and in statehouses throughout the nation.

The consequences of the weak Democratic showing were particularly painful in New York State. It lost a Governor of great stature, Mario Cuomo, in favor of an untested newcomer, George Pataki. Mr. Pataki's promise of a sweeping tax cut poses a clear threat to New York City. Its Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, responded heroically to this threat with his endorsement of Mr. Cuomo. The first test for Mr. Pataki will be to show that he is not vindictive toward the city or the Mayor, and that he is independent of his political sponsor, Senator Alfonse D'Amato.

The task for Mr. Clinton is more formidable. With Republicans winning control of both the Senate and the House, he must now articulate a legislative program that stands some chance of success despite a far weaker hand. There were a few bright spots -- Oliver North's defeat in Virginia among them -- but over all this was a powerful body blow to Bill Clinton and a repudiation of his party's conduct in Congress.

Mr. Clinton is not wholly to blame. His advisers fear that the losing Democrats will fault him for their individual misfortunes and that the survivors will decide they owe him nothing. But the reasons for the Democratic debacle go beyond the President and predate his tenure. When Mr. Clinton came to town the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, and the Congressional leadership could not deliver on the agenda defined by him and endorsed by their convention and their Congressional candidates.

This failure of governance must be laid at the feet of the retiring Senate majority leader, George Mitchell; the embattled Speaker, Thomas Foley, and a leadership team that placed loyalty to them above cooperation with the White House or public demands for Congressional and campaign finance reform. Add this non-performance to the familiar witches' brew of public discontent -- the sour national attitude toward politics generally and the rebellion against incumbents in particular -- and it is easy to see why the Democrats got whacked.

There is at least one other major cause: a nagging, nationwide sense of economic discomfort. On its face this is puzzling. The economy has improved, inflation is low and the deficit is under better control than it was during the 12 Reagan-Bush years.

But to millions of people this is vague and theoretical stuff. They do not feel better in their pocketbooks. Meanwhile, the party that promised welfare reform produced none; the party that made a huge bet on health-care reform used a secret laboratory to create a Frankenstein's monster that defied legislative redesign. The fact that there was a crime bill, a North American Free Trade Agreement and some smaller trophies did not, in the end, count for much with the public.

In a CBS News/New York Times Poll a couple of weeks ago, only 30 percent said that "government should do more to solve national problems" while 63 percent said government was doing "too many things better left to businesses and individuals." That is one big problem for a President who still sees himself as an activist. His other big problem is all those feisty Republicans who will be parachuting into Washington come January.

These Republicans do not much believe in government and they are not likely to be helpful. Many of them ran and won on Newt Gingrich's seductive but simplistic "Contract With America." Some of them ran on demagogic symbols -- the death penalty, immigrant-bashing.

Whatever they ran on, all of them ran against Bill Clinton. This is not a happy prospect for a man who campaigned in 1992 on one theme: change. But as Senator Phil Gramm suggested, the new force in Congress cannot expect to sell two-party gridlock as the solution to the one-party version that the voters rejected so powerfully yesterday. "Now the burden is on Republicans," Senator Gramm observed. "Can we give them a coherent program?"

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