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Reading meaning into results // Conservatism moves forward once again

Pursing its lips austerely, the electorate saw its duty and did it pitilessly. Feeling inclined to extend the Clinton presidency, it did so in a deflating manner, making him a lame duck on a short leash held by a Congress that probably will be controlled by Republicans for the rest of his tenure. Which is why his smile after the election could be construed as an inverted grimace.

On the 30th anniversary of the beginning of conservatism's ascendancy, voters produced another advance for conservatism. They gave Clinton what history says is a recipe for disappointment _ a second term. And they let Republicans retain control of the engine of government in an era of restored congressional supremacy.

Republicans, having gained 10 House seats while Clinton was winning in 1992, and 52 in 1994, were due to suffer significant losses, yet Democrats seem, as this is written, to have gained only 10 House seats. Since World War II the party winning the presidency had gained, on average, 14 seats. And Democratic strength probably will suffer more erosion in 1998: Since the war, midterm elections in a presidency's second term have produced average gains of 34 House and seven Senate seats for the opposition.

In 1966, with voters recoiling from LBJ's domestic overreaching and Vietnam deceptions, conservatism rebounded from the anti-Goldwater landslide, gaining 47 House and three Senate seats. It won five of the next six presidential elections. The one not won produced Carter's presidency, which confirmed a pattern: Conservatism's long-term prospects are brightened by the Democrats' short-term successes. Carter _ humiliation abroad, stagflation at home _ produced Reagan.

Bush's loss made possible Clinton's liberal half-term, which produced a Republican Congress. This year the mid-October certainty of Clinton's re-election may have been a prerequisite for Republicans keeping Congress.

By one measure, the Democrats' base in presidential politics now almost matches that of the Republicans. Begin with 1988 (because in 1984 Reagan carried five more states than Democrats carried in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984 combined). The 10 states and the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections have 107 electoral votes. The 16 states that have voted Republican three consecutive times have 135 electoral votes.

For a second time Clinton has carried all of New England. LBJ was the only previous Democrat to do that. But for Democrats, domination there is less important than the waning of their Southern strength. Arkansas' election of a Republican senator leaves Louisiana as the only Southern state with two Democratic senators. (Nancy Kassebaum's retirement and Dole's resignation gave Kansas two chances to elect its first Democratic senator since 1939. It declined to do so.)

Clinton's failure to win a popular-vote majority is not remarkable. No president between Grant and McKinley won one; Woodrow Wilson won twice without one; since FDR, LBJ is the only Democrat to exceed 51 percent. (Carter got 50.1.) Clinton's 43 percent in 1992 was what Democrats averaged between 1968 and 1988, and his 6-point improvement over 1992 fell short of even Woodrow Wilson's gain of 7.4 points between 1912 and 1916.

Still, Clinton sought and got a mandate. So, adolescents wanting driver's licenses should wear their school uniforms when they deposit urine samples at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The gallantry of Dole's final dash was inspiriting, and effective. His popular vote percentage was 3.4 points better than Bush's in 1992 and it refutes the facile conclusion that the race was always unwinnable. A smarter campaign could have won. Still, conservatives can take comfort from this: Considering who replaces whom, the Senate will be more conservative than it was, perhaps even more conservative than the House.

For many conservatives, the four most important goals this year were _ moving from least to most important _ winning the presidency, passing the California Civil Rights Initiative (which bans racial preferences), holding the Senate and, especially, the House.

The conservatives' reasoning: The presidency has been marginalized, and this president has been miniaturized; the CCRI involved a nation-breaking issue that was decided by one-eighth of the nation's electorate; control is more important in the House than the Senate because a minority of senators can immobilize the Senate.

For conservatives, attaining three out of four goals, and the top three, made Tuesday another milestone on a continuing ascendancy.

Washington Post Writers Group

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