Despite all the seeming activity represented in the headlines, crises, presidential messages, and congressional debates, the consuming and somewhat morbid interest in Washington is in the imponderables of the coming summer and fall. Because the power, careers, contacts, and prestige of so many ride on the outcome of the elections, the preoccupation with next November stems from something other than an excess of civic virtue. Every four years, moreover, the machinery of government and the efforts of government workers become still more devoted to keeping the incumbent party in power. Yet this election season is one of rampant unease because of the already nervous condition of the Capital, the dangers of the coming months, and the elusiveness of the electorate. On this latter point there is, for once, bipartisan agreement. Even the political professionals here evidence deep uncertainty, if not bewilderment, over how the election may turn and why. There is apprehension within both parties, and for good reason. As the nonpartisan National Committee for an Effective Congress has pointed out, there is a new mood of "anti-partiism" in the electorate, which stems not from a lack of interest in politics, but from an enlarged awareness on the part of the voters that political parties are "more tinsel than tree."
COUNTING ON TROUBLE
It is a sign of the destitution of the current state of politics that to a major extent each party's program consists of counting on the other to defeat itself. Republican strategists are aware of the historical improbability of turning an incumbent President out of office, but they like to think that Mr. Johnson is working himself out of the job. "He is stockpiling trouble for America, and for himself," said one Republican strategist, trying very hard to look sorry about that. Democratic politicians know that their own party is in deep trouble, but they are relying on the Republicans to produce another kamikaze performance. Democratic leaders like to point out that the Republican candidate will emerge from a pool of blood.
Certain as it seems that the President will run for re-election, and despite the signs that he is giving that he will, it has occurred to more than a few people here--and some of the President's close associates do not deny the possibility--that for one reason or another he will not. In this case, of course, all bets are off. Robert Kennedy has taken himself out of a race against Mr. Johnson "under any foreseeable circumstances." This seemed less than clear, but for the time being, at least, the message was that he would not run against Lyndon Johnson period. (At one point, Kennedy's announcement was that he would not run "under any conceivable circumstances," but it is easy to treat the semantics too seriously. If he runs, he runs, and he would not be held by press or public to his earlier disavowals, any more than would Nelson Rockefeller, or than would have, for that matter, William Tecumseh Sherman, had he changed his mind.) The President shares the view of many that his opponent is likely to be Richard Nixon, and if Nixon fails, Nelson Rockefeller.
UNYOUNG, UNBLACK, UNPOOR
It is fairly obvious that the issue will be Vietnam, the race/urban crisis, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the deepening national malaise, but it is a far more complicated matter to determine which of these may be decisive and how. One formulation of the electorate that has been receiving widespread and respectful attention here is that of Richard Scammon, of the Governmental Affairs Institute, a nonprofit research organization. Mr. Scammon is an established expert, possibly THE expert, on elections, and a former director of the Census Bureau; moreover, he gives advice to the White House, a fact which adds to the relevance of his views. The Scammon thesis runs as follows:
The essential fact about the 1968 electorate is that it is basically "unyoung, unblack, and unpoor." Unyoung: The much advertised youth explosion notwithstanding, the average voter is in his mid-to-late forties. In 1964, three fourths of the votes for President were cast by those thirty-five and over; this year, those under twenty-five would not represent more than one in 10 votes, and students no more than one percent or one and a half percent of the electorate. Age, moreover, is probably not one of the "issues" on which people vote. The youth these days may be more articulate, but the fact is that the more vocal among them are only a small proportion; moreover, there are no grounds for assuming that the preponderance of the students and young voters hold to one view, or would vote on one side. There are probably, Scammon notes, more Teamsters than students who will vote in the coming election. Unblack: Nobody knows exactly what the Negro population is. It is known that the proportionate election turnout of Negroes is lower than that of whites; of the poor, lower than that of the better off; of the less educated, lower than that of the well educated. In sum, about 90 percent of the electorate is white. Unpoor: Although poverty cannot be said to have been eliminated, there have been seven years of economic expansion, and a great many people have moved into or within the middle classes since 1960. Of that 90 percent of the electorate which is white, that which is not rural is also, in the main, not poor.
THE OLD LASSO
Therefore, American politics are dominated now as never before by lower-middle- and middle-middle-class whites. Any consensus among this group as to how things ought to be means that's how things are going to be. This is the class that elects Presidents. It was the feeling of this group that Eisenhower was a good man that gave the GOP its first victory since 1932. It was its feeling that Goldwater was the less desirable candidate that elected Johnson. This is the group to which a successful national appeal must be made. Within it, there are many strong Democrats and strong Republicans (labor union affiliation is no longer equated with Democratic), but there is also within it a very large group which, depending on which way it goes, can decide the election.
What, then, might cause this group to swing one way or another? Not, according to Scammon, Vietnam; at least not Vietnam as a confrontation of policy alternatives. Lyndon Johnson's strategy this year as in past ones will be to get out his old lasso, make the loop as wide as possible, and rope the voters in. He will take up so much space that it will be difficult for an opponent to get to either side of him on domestic or foreign policy. Eugene McCarthy has already found out how hard it is to make an issue of the President's handling of the Vietnam War, no matter how unhappy the country may be over it. This was a major, perhaps the major, factor in Robert Kennedy's decision to stay out. There are simply too many traps on the dove side of the President; would-be hawks will also find the going perilous. Barring continuing military reversals--which would change the politics of the Vietnam issue and could be one of those "unforeseeable circumstances--the President can produce war news or peace news; he can diminish or intensify the bombing; he can fly to Camranh Bay or to Geneva. He can be as much for peace as any man, but "peace with honor," peace without "tucking tail," peace which does not betray our fighting men, and it is fairly difficult to run an election campaign, where arguments can't get too complicated, against that. It will be difficult for his opponent to vow to end the war without being pressed to explain just how. At that point the Vietnam debate could resemble that over Quemoy and Matsu in 1960; the candidates argue on in exquisite detail about something the electorate only faintly understands, until they realize that no one is listening. (Gavin's theories, as amended, vs. Reischauer's? Kennan's vs. Scalapino's?)