With all the media hype about an "anti-incumbent" backlash, you would have thought that some politician would have changed his name to "None of the Above," to win by a landslide.
The smart money was wrong. The people who gave us record deficits and higher taxes will be back in Washington. The voters may be against Congress, but there was nobody named Congress on the ballot.If there is any help on the way, it will probably arrive in 1992. Voters may not throw the rascals out then, but some of the rascals may throw themselves out - 1992 is the last year when members of Congress can retire and keep their campaign contributions to use as their own personal money.
Some lawmakers have millions of dollars in campaign contributions stashed away. They may take the money and run - or rather not run.
A few incumbents got scared on election night when their challengers came close, including such prominent figures as Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democrats and Rep. Newt Gingrich for the Republicans. But some congressional incumbents ran either unopposed or with only token opposition.
Until a few months ago, the Republicans had a tremendous political advantage in being against raising taxes. But the Bush administration threw away that advantage in their zeal for a deal. The Democrats completely outfoxed the president. It was like seeing a major league baseball player get fooled by the hidden ball trick, on nationwide television, during a World Series.
The big question is whether the Republicans also threw away the 1992 election - and maybe others after that - by the administration's blatant welshing on the "no new taxes" pledge, which could have been a rallying cry for years.
The Washington smoothies may think that the public has a short memory and that the political backlash against the president will be history by 1992. But can anyone doubt that we are going to see videotapes of President Bush saying "read my lips" a hundred times in 1992 political ads for the Democrats? The issue is not just the taxes but the betrayal and the credibility.
President Bush's declining popularity may have reached the worst possible level for the Republicans. His ratings are still not low enough to prevent his getting renominated in 1992, but may be just low enough for him to lose and drag down other Republican candidates with him.
All this might be material for a profile in courage, if the president sacrifices his own political chances for the sake of reducing the federal deficit and sparing the next generation the burden of a massive debt. But anyone who thinks that this new tax increase is going to reduce the federal deficit might as well believe in the tooth fairy.
It will simply unleash another congressional spending spree. Congress has already used the occasion of the budget deal to increase its own pay and perks. It will undoubtedly hide the cost of many new giveaway programs behind spending growing out of the Middle East crisis.
Congress played this game throughout the two Reagan administrations, blaming increased federal spending on the "Reagan military buildup," when in fact increased spending on social programs far exceeded that of the military. Everything about the game they played on Bush was a repetition of old Democrats' games pulled on Republicans. The Democrats not only got away with raising most people's taxes but also put the Republicans on the defensive by denouncing "the rich."
Statistically this was just another off-year election in which the party in the White House lost a few seats. Politically, the Republicans lost a rare opportunity to reverse that trend. How much more they lost we will find out in 1992.