The people who are scanning the midterm election results for clues to a new power balance between President Bush and his Democratic rivals are looking at the wrong thing. The fascinating and often surprising results of Tuesday's voting send a mixed message about prospects for a successful Democratic challenge in 1992. What is not in doubt is a brand-new dynamic inside the GOP.
Pollster Dick Morris, a strategist in William Weld's (R) come-from-behind victory over John H. Silber (D) in the Massachusetts governor's race, exaggerates only slightly when he talks about the "rebirth of the liberal Republicans." Few Republicans use that adjective -- but the "moderate" or "progressive" wing of the GOP was strengthened immeasurably by the elections of new Republican governors to replace Democrats in Ohio, Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota and Massachusetts, and by the men who took over governors' chairs being vacated by other Republicans in Illinois and -- most important -- California.
To oversimplify and exaggerate slightly, if one generation of Republican politics began with the election of Ronald Reagan as California governor in 1966, another generation may well have started with Pete Wilson's takeover of that office in 1990.
The challenge of Reagan tugged Richard Nixon to the right in the 1968 presidential campaign. All during the time that Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford, spent in the White House, they kept an anxious eye on the conservative wing of his party, led by Reagan. George Bush also has governed with his glance fixed on the right, knowing that the Reaganites never really regarded him as one of their own and never really trusted him.
But now the internal balance of the GOP has shifted. The southern base that Reagan welded to the GOP and Bush exploited as his heir in 1988 has been weakened with the defeat of staunchly conservative Republicans in the Florida and Texas governorships and their replacement by moderate-liberal Democrats.
At the same time, forceful new Republicans, many of them with urban voting bases, are taking over in California and the northern tier states where Lincoln-Teddy Roosevelt-Eisenhower Republicanism had its roots.
All this is a far cry from Reagan's "government-is-the-problem" philosophy. And personally, these men are far from the Reagan model. Wilson, at some political risk, supported Ford against Reagan back in 1976; Weld resigned in protest from Reagan's Justice Department when Reagan would not fire Attorney General Edwin Meese.
On the most sensitive platform issue facing Bush in 1992 -- whether to renew or soften the GOP's strict antiabortion stand -- Wilson, Illinois' Jim Edgar and Weld will weigh in heavily on the abortion-rights side. George Voinovich and John Engler, governors-elect in Ohio and Michigan, are antiabortion, but the California, Illinois and Massachusetts delegations will make the debate far more spirited than it was at the last three conventions.
But the conservatives have powerful arguments of their own to use with Bush as he repositions himself for 1992. On two fundamental issues -- taxes and race/affirmative action -- they can credibly assert that the voters endorsed their views. The tax revolt was probably the single most pervasive theme in the necessarily muddled mid-term voting, causing problems for candidates and parties tied to national or state tax hikes.
Noting the defeat of Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), one of the few incumbents in contested races to support the Bush-endorsed budget agreement, and the astonishing hairbreadth escape of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), caught in a tax revolt against New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio (D), Burton Yale Pines of the conservative Heritage Foundation said, "Bush has to look at Boschwitz and Bradley and see a warning for 1992. It's like a light heart attack for a young man. It tells you to change your way of operating."
Veteran Democratic strategist Robert S. Strauss, who supported the Bush-approved budget summit agreement and tax hikes, acknowledged that the election showed that "the American people still think they can have the things they want without paying taxes for them." Pressure on Bush to go back to his earlier anti-tax stance is bound to grow.
The other conservative issue that showed great force was opposition to race-based affirmative-action programs. It showed not only in North Carolina and Alabama, but in California, where minorities are approaching majority status in the population. As has been said here before, white voters are increasingly hostile to programs they perceive as benefiting minorities -- at their expense. Some of that is based on racial hostility and some on economic anxiety and some on a self-defined "fairness" criterion.
But as former Carter White House aide Stuart Eizenstat said, "Bush knew exactly what he was doing when he vetoed the civil-rights bill" on grounds it imposed hiring quotas.
Finding a politically and morally defensible position on that prickly issue will challenge the 1992 Democratic contenders as much as the altered power balance inside the GOP tests Bush.