A wake-up call for the GOP.

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Republicans are in a pretty good mood these days in spite of Bob Dole’s loss. Their party successfully preserved its majority in Congress despite an expensive and wildly deceptive Democratic onslaught against Newt Gingrich, Republican freshmen, and GOP efforts on Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.

Conservative Republicans are especially pleased with the way the election has led to what the Christian Coalition’s political director has called ” philosophical upgrades” in Congress. Take the Senate. Retiring GOP moderates Mark Hatfield and Alan Simpson were replaced by the more conservative Gordon Smith and Mike Enzi. And “conservative” is the word to describe the three Republicans who picked up Senate seats formerly held by Democrats. Moreover, the one Democrat who unseated a Republican — prochoice Republican Larry Pressler in South Dakota, to be exact — is pro-life. In the House, the Republican membership has taken on a slightly more conservative cast. While moderate Republicans lost seats, rightwing Republicans increased in number.

The GOP is smacking its lips in anticipation of the next congressional elections in 1998. That will be Clinton’s sixth year in office. History shows that the party controlling the White House gets eviscerated in the congressional races held during a president’s sixth year. Could Republicans end up after Election Day 1998 with 60 seats in the Senate (the magic number that makes it impossible for Democrats to filibuster GOP legislation)? Perhaps 30 more House seats? It’s not out of the question. Huzzah!

Republicans have every right to feel happy with the way the party survived in the House and increased its majority in the Senate. But before the triumphalism gets entirely out of hand, we ought to take a long, hard look at the contours of the 1996 results, especially for the House. What’s there ought to give real pause.

It’s worth remembering that a year ago, Republicans seemed to have everything going for them. Many more Democrats were deciding to retire from Congress than Republicans (it’s no fun being in the minority). This, in turn, gave the GOP a real chance to pick up seats in 1996. Why? Because it’s always easier to win an open seat than to beat an incumbent — especially when many of the seats vacated by Democrats were in districts that had shown Republican tendencies in past presidential elections. By contrast, retiring Republicans mostly served in reliably Republican districts, making it especially difficult for Democrats to win these vacancies.

Republicans did indeed do well in the open Democratic seats — they won ten, while the Democrats won only three. But Democrats did something much harder: They beat incumbents. Democrats knocked out 18 sitting Republican members, compared to three such victories in the GOP.

That is not good news for Republicans, and the news gets worse. For if GOP losses had been scattered uniformly across the nation, there wouldn’t be anything that remarkable about the 1996 outcome. But the losses weren’t scattered. Instead, they followed a fascinating, and worrisome, pattern — a pattern that looked like a broken arc.

There were two separate elections in 1996. Election #1 took place in the South, the Great Plains, and the West. The GOP won it decisively. The Republican party held all but three of its incumbents and picked up 13 seats previously held by Democrats. (The Democrats took one seat in Louisiana and two in North Carolina.)

Election #2 took place in a long, continent-wide curve — a broken arc. The arc went from California up the west coast, where it broke off. It resumed in the northern plains and went from there to the Rust Belt, then to the Northeast, and finally down to the mid-Atlantic. The Democrats won Election #2 decisively: They picked up 22 seats formerly held by Republicans, thus wiping out about one-tenth of the GOP holdings in the 104th Congress. The only Republican pickup in the arc was a lone House seat in Illinois — the seat vacated by Dick Durbin, who ran for the Senate and won. The Republican gains in Election # 1 offset the party’s losses in Election #2 enough to retain a majority in the House. But the losses in Election #2 are geographically ominous ones.

So were the results in the close races — those won by a margin of six percentage points or less. Any incumbent who wins so narrowly becomes a tempting target in the next election. Nationwide, only seven Democratic incumbents found themselves in close races. That’s compared with 37 Republicans. Nineteen of those Republicans won — and 14 of them were in the broken arc. Given how inhospitable the broken arc was to Republicans in this election, every one of those 14 reelected incumbents may find himself in trouble come 1998.

Why has this geographical pattern emerged? The answer may be nothing more than that Bill Clinton actually had some coattails — the president did indeed win big in most states in the arc. If that is true, Republicans may take comfort; there will be no such coattails in 1998.

But what if something deeper is going on? Is there something about the increasingly southern and western character of the GOP that is chasing away voters who live in the arc? If so, that could be catastrophic for the Republican party. Republicans have done so well in the South and West that they may not have much more to gain in these areas, which are less densely populated than most of the states in the broken arc. Let us say the arc really has become inhospitable territory for Republicans, and they lose another 20 seats in the arc in 1998 (we know this is possible, considering the vulnerable incumbents there). The GOP may not be able to find ten seats in the South and West to offset those losses. And this is to say nothing of the election in the year 2000, and the one after that, and the one after that.

What happened in the arc? If you asked a liberal what the trouble was, he would surely answer, “God, gays, and guns.” In other words, the Republican party is too much the creature of the religious Right, is too intolerant, and panders too much to the National Rifle Association. But those are the very reasons for recent GOP successes in the South and West, according to some GOP analysts.

A pragmatist would split the difference between them. If “God, gays, and guns” dominates the Republican message nationwide, even in states that don’t want to hear it, that’s bad for the whole party. People in other states don’t want to talk about abortion; they prefer to hear about balancing the budget and deregulation. After all, managing a coalition like the GOP means that the various needs of its constituent groups must be met in such a way that the result is a net gain for all. If some members are causing net losses, it’s time to rethink. Maybe there’s a way to mix and match the Republican message.

The problem is that kind of candidate the pragmatist would love really didn’t do well this year — a candidate who is conservative on economic issues but is pro-choice, willing to vote for the Brady bill, secular, and tolerant of other lifestyle choices. Two such candidates lost high-profile Senate races — William Weld in Massachusetts and Dick Zimmer in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Smith pulled off his own reelection in New Hampshire thanks in part to the lastminute efforts of the Christian Coalition and the NRA — this in a state that also went big for Clinton. Nor were all the GOP House casualties fire-breathing revolutionaries.

So the Republican collapse in the arc may not be because of “God, gays, and guns.” Rather, it may be because Democrats found a way to connect with these voters by talk about the kinds of subjects “God, gays, and guns” are meant to address. Maybe people voted Democratic not because they hated Republicans but because they actually liked a new message they were hearing from Democratic candidates. Many of them, from the president on down, sounded values-type themes — protecting children (family values), more cops (law and order), school uniforms (discipline), and so on. Talking about these issues is a world away from advocating universal health insurance and economic stimulus packages. The GOP wanted people to believe the Democrats were liberals in disguise, but didn’t succeed in proving the charge with voters. It takes a conservative ideologue — and I am one, at least intermittently — to ascribe these Democratic themes solely to the party’s need for protective cover.

Therein lies another possible explanation for the trouble in the arc, one we might call the “Newt effect.” I am not referring to the effort to portray the House speaker as a symbol of dangerous extremism, but rather to his ideological rigor — shared by most Republican freshmen and others in the party — and the effect it might have had on the election.

The chief characteristic of such ideological rigor is that those who use it believe it reveals to them the answers to all important questions. For them, politics is just a matter of implementation. But most people do not think in ideological terms and are confused and offended by grand theories like the Third Wave (Gingrich’s) and libertarianism (Dick Armey’s). Gingrich and his troops put their conservative ideology on parade during the 104th Congress, and that may have proved as off-putting as naked liberal ideology has been in the past — not because of its content, but because of the certitude and insistence of those propounding it. The Republican realignment of 1994 has endured, but it may have contained the seeds of its own reversal. It may be that Democrats have learned from it and may gain from it in ways Gingrich (and many of us) never expected.

Election night 1996 might have gone a different way. The Democratic administration might have collapsed, the Republican presidential nominee might have crushed Bill Clinton, Republicans might have continued making gains throughout the country as they did in 1994, and Americans, grateful for the GOP’s success in protecting and preserving Medicare, might have stood and applauded as the Republican government proceeded to enact a flat tax and privatize Social Security. But it didn’t work out that way.

Instead, the Democrats fought back, vigorously. And they have much to show for their efforts, including the broken arc. Democrats will be studying their gains in the arc, as well as the potential limits to GOP expansion in the South and West. And since they are not and probably never will be in a surrendering frame of mind, they will conclude, quite rightly, that they have opportunities. How much they are able to make of them will depend, in part, on how complacent the GOP is.