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11:00 PM, Nov 24, 1996 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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.