Lessons for Bush, GOP in NE elections

By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst  |  Nov. 7, 2001 at 6:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- There are were no major political trends to discern from Tuesday night's results for governor and mayor in several major U.S. cities and states, but a lot of useful political lessons can still be learned.

The coming economic recession now finally hitting in full force and the uncertainties of the terrorist threat at home and the war against the Taliban regime on the other side of the world in Afghanistan make it impossible to project current domestic political trends in 2002 or 2004.

Regardless of how the political map looks then, a surprising number of lessons from Tuesday's results will still apply.

Lesson 1: The Right Coattails Still Count. There was only one place where this mattered, but a very important one. Had New York City's hero, Sir Rudy Giuliani (the Queen of England has knighted him) not enthusiastically endorsed billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg as his successor, Bloomberg would certainly have lost.

Bloomberg's rival, Democratic Party candidate Mark Green, made many major strategic mistakes in his campaign and he was also unlucky in a lot of things. But then, luck is the most important quality to have in politics, as in so many other activities. And in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by five to one and in a race where he continued to lead Bloomberg well after the catastrophic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Green's defeat was a seismic upheaval. The one late-breaking factor that had most to do with it was Giuliani coming out swinging for Bloomberg.

This evidence of Giuliani's potent hero-charisma should be noted. There has been no test of whether it is equally potent beyond the borders of New York City or New York state. But it very well could be. If so, he could succeed where even Fiorello LaGuardia, Nelson Rockefeller and Ed Koch failed and become the first New York politician to carry his appeal nationwide since Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

Lesson 2: The President of the United States has no Coattails.

George W. Bush has been most evident in New York City by his absence, as the legendary New York Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra might have put it. Sure he visited Ground Zero of the annihilated World Trade Center, many days after Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki did. And sure, Bush did throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game Three of the World Series, the first to be held at Yankee Stadium. But Bush showed no charisma or interest in the vast crowd there. And he was notable by his absence at the heartfelt rock Concert for New York City organized by that other Gotham Knight, Sir Paul McCartney.

Bush can claim no credit for Bloomberg's upstart win in New York, much as his indefatigable spinmeisters will try to. As noted in Lesson 1, credit for that goes to a man the president may even loathe and certainly does not love -- Giuliani.

In the two races where Bush should have had the most coattails, the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, his candidates failed miserably.

Virginia has supposedly been tilting towards the Republicans for more than decade, and it is just across the state line from Bush in the District of Columbia. And the outgoing Virginia governor, Jim Gilmore, was a minimalist government, anti-welfare, anti-spending conservative after Bush's own heart. But Democrat Mark Warner rode to victory and cracked what was supposed to be a firm Republican hold on a classic New South GOP stronghold.

Bush had chosen New Jersey's twice-elected Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for his Cabinet to run the Environmental Protection Agency. But his coattails did not extend to New Jersey, either.

James McGreevey, who narrowly lost to Whitman four years ago, hammered Republican candidate Bret Schundler by a whopping 56 percent to 42 percent.

Bush was not buoyed by Bloomberg's victory in New York. But he was certainly disappointed by Schundler's almost-landslide defeat. Giuliani's endorsement of Bloomberg was quite a sufficient reason for Bush to give him the cold shoulder.

But Schundler was a tough small government, tax-cutting conservative after his own heart who won his party's nomination in the face of the Northeast GOP moderates whom Bush despises as wimps. Bush had hoped to campaign for Schundler, but the war and security demands on him following the Sept. 11 mega-terrorist attacks in New York and Washington prevented him from doing so.

Lesson 3: The Republican fashion for enacting term limits is a two-edged sword that has now started to cut the GOP to pieces.

Around the nation, Republican governors who have benefited from their gains at state level over the past decade have the most to lose wherever term limits have been enacted. The same applies at the city level. Bloomberg did edge out Green in New York's cliffhanger, but he did so primarily because of Giuliani's endorsement. Had Giuliani been free to run for a third term, he would have swept home in an unprecedented landslide after his heroic leadership of the city in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 horrors that killed about 5,000 people.

In Virginia, Gilmore would have had an uphill battle, anyway, but Warner's victory was made much easier by the fact that he did not have to run against an incumbent. Virginia governors are limited to a single term in office.

Lesson 1 has no national implications. Lessons 2 and 3 have sobering ones for the Republicans. They are straws blowing in a wind that suggests all the Conservative Conventional Wisdoms of winning elections in the United States over the past 30 years may be fraying at the edges. We will be exploring more of these lessons in Part Two of this three-part series.

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