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?)
From time to time, the President suggests to reporters that the country is essentially hawkish, that he could easily generate support by whipping up war fever, and that his restraint is not fully appreciated. There are other sides to this, however, of which the President is well aware. Escalation of war fever makes de-escalation of the war more difficult (viz., Richard Nixon's attack on the Administration for moderation in bombing during the attack on South Vietnam's cities), and the President, as everyone knows, likes his options. The administration may well have learned the dangers of self-made rhetorical traps: aggression must not be rewarded, we are fighting for democracy in South Vietnam, we must honor our SEATO agreement, we are defending Honolulu. Moreover, the President understands that the country may be basically hawkish but it does not like war. He is given to telling visitors that the country was solidly behind Presidents in other wars, but tended to turn on them as the war dragged on. Truman at the time of Korea is his favorite example.
George Romney has suggest that most Viet Cong may not be Communists after all, but "disillusioned nationalists," and George Aiken (R., Vermont), one of the most reasonable men in the Senate, has charged that "we made a huge military commitment in that part of the world simply because we did not have the wit, the imagination, or the courage to devise a political strategy to suit a political problem," but there is little reason to believe that the major Republican thrust will be along these lines. More likely is another they-got-us-into-it-and-they-can't-settle-it campaign with the accompanying motif of they-haven't-been-telling-us-the-truth. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D., Massachusetts) injected a new possibility, and his brother followed suit, by opposing Thieu and Ky rather than Johnson and Humphrey, by denouncing corruption and privilege in South Vietnam and asking if our boys should die for this. The White House did not take this too seriously at first, and the Republicans might not have the sense to pick it up, but if developed, this could become a powerfully effective tactic arousing the widespread yet latent feeling that this country has been had. Some Republicans think the trouble with the GOP general position on the war--that the President is pursuing the right policy but he should have done it differently--is that it is too sophisticated, and that is, to be sure, one way of looking at it.
Scammon believes that to the extent that Vietnam is the issue which the voter decides and he does not think the extent will be great--it will be in terms of what he calls the "personnel director" question: who is the better person to do the job? It certainly did not hurt that Dwight D. Eisenhower pledged in 1952 that he would go to Korea, but far more important was that he was the image of the man that the electorate wanted in charge of the country. In 1956, voters who said they were for Eisenhower because he kept the peace backed him when the Suez crisis broke out a week before the election because he was the kind of man the country needed in time of war. Mr. Johnson is not many people's idea of the most popular boy in his class, but his strategists count on the electorate's capacity to mellow, grow accustomed to his face, and decide that when it comes right down to it, President knows best. The mercurial quality of the polls indicates that this is not at all out of the question.
The outcome of the election is most likely to be determined, however, according to the Scammon thesis, by the intensity of and presidential response to riots. The unyoung, unblack, and unpoor group which decides elections is not overly fond of Negroes to begin with. They are potential George Wallace supporters, which could cause Mr. Johnson trouble in the North. Yet the President would like history to record him, as it might, as the Chief Executive who opened the most opportunities for Negroes, not as the one who presided over a new apartheid.
While there now are strong indications that an appeal can be made to do something about "the underlying causes" of Negro discontent, if there are continuous riots, if white neighborhoods are threatened, the deal is off. If there is serious, continuing rioting, Scammon argues, the election is in the hands of the President. If the President moves decisively, acts quickly, talks tough, restores order, he wins; if he temporizes, gets into a public argument over the calling in of troops, appears doubtful, afraid, he loses.
It may be nothing more than coincidence that the President's aides are now talking about the need for more firmness in response to rioting. Insisting that riots will not be tolerated and at the same time urging that the country understand the grievances behind the riots simply will not work, they say. But talking tough and physically quelling a riot are matters of far different magnitude. Suppression cannot be anything but ugly and frightening; the occupation of American cities by federal troops is no one's national dream. Perhaps Scammon is right, and perhaps the President's men are not deluding themselves when they suggest that the public might accept a fifth summer of riots as endemic, inevitable, or nobody's fault. But the President is also the only potential candidate who could be badly hurt by riots.
All of this is predicated on the assumption that there will be riots, but official Washington's knowledge about this is at about the stage of early sorcery. There are a number of theories floating about, each one offered with equal certitude: "they" have learned that riots don't pay; "they" have learned that riots help because they draw attention to ghetto conditions; a riot is a kind of catharsis, so cities tend not to "blow" twice and most have blown once; this summer "they" are coming to the white neighborhoods; "they" know that the whites outnumber them. The fact of the matter is that the government does not have, probably cannot have, credible information. As the President's Commission on Civil Disorders has learned, there are patterns and there are not. As government officials have learned, lists of potential trouble spots can be drawn up, and then all logic is defied by the summer's events. And some ghetto youths delight in scaring the wits out of whites through hyperbolic threats, and particularly enjoy spreading visions of the apocalypse before gullible and ill-disguised federal agents. (Thus Rap Brown, upon his arrest for carrying a gun on an airplane: "If he's [Johnson] afraid of me with my gun, wait till I get my atom bomb.") Still, there is little basis for optimism.
If Vietnam is in fact a wash as an issue, and if the summer is relatively peaceful, then there will be what the professionals call a "normal" election. The lower-middle- and middle-middle-class electorate will be avidly pursued by both parties. But as the Congress' renewed interest in "fair housing" laws shows, both sides are tempted to hedge bets in the event of a close election in which the Negro urban vote can be crucial. The Republicans will talk about the failure of leadership, credibility, the chaos of the cities, the disarray of the economy, and they will offer to change all that. They will play upon the quadrennial dim enchantment of the farmers, the facts that now Aunt Minnie can't go to Rome, and even the debasement of silver currency.
WAITING FOR LEFTIES
Mr. Johnson will run against beards, draft-card burners, criminals, and rioters, and perhaps Eartha Kitt. If the great unwashed disrupt the Chicago convention, so much the better for him, for the President will capitalize on the anti-dissent dissent ("your enemies are my enemies"). The rejection of middle-class values is not, after all, the preponderant characteristic of the middle class. The Johnson administration will take to the country with claims of an unprecedentedly long period of economic expansion and an extensive list of legislative achievements. It will point out how many education bills have be passed--an issue believed to be of great appeal to the crucial elector--and that Lyndon Johnson is providing us with clean meat and fish (the White House would like it understood that Ralph Nader is a myth).
Democratic strategists profess some puzzlement, even a little hurt that these achievements seem neither fully understood nor appreciated by the electorate. They talk earnestly, just like everybody else, about the need to communicate. But Lyndon Johnson just happens to be master political craftsman in an increasingly nonpolitical era; the worst thing, in fact, that those disenchanted with Robert Kennedy think of to say about him is that in taking himself out of the race he "acted like a politician."
The Democratic strategists are correct that their legislative achievements are not fully appreciated. This is not so much because the electorate is against "big government" anymore--a shift which many Republicans do not yet seem to have grasped--but because it cannot sufficiently see, hear, feel, smell, or taste all of the good things that are supposed to have come of all the activity. It is not that Washington is bad, but that it seems remote and irrelevant. The paycheck is larger, but the beaches are harder to get to and dirtier when we do; the mail doesn't come, the garbage isn't collected, the meat costs more, and teacher is on strike. Medicare was a great issue for the Democrats until it was enacted.
The electorate, it is widely assumed, is little interested in parties or ideologies anymore, but in a more antiseptic element called "problem-solving." Is he a man who will get things done? Will he let us get things done? Robert Kennedy and John Gardner are very different men, but both of them are on to what they sense is a national desire, amounting almost to a collective personal need, to get to work on our problems.
THE BEST OF MEDICINES
In a speech delivered not long before he resigned in frustration over the Johnson Administration's order of priorities, Mr. Gardner spoke of the need "to restore a sense of community and participation at the local level, which is the only level that will have immediate meaning for large numbers of Americans. We have too long pretended that individuals can live their lives without those ingredients. They cannot. Individuals actively participating in a community where they can see their problems face to face, know their leaders personally, sense the social structure of which they are a part--such individuals are the best possible guaranty that the intricately organized society we are heading into will not also be a dehumanized, depersonalized machine. They are also the best hope for curing the local apathy, corruption and slovenliness that make a mockery of self-government in so many localities. Responsibility is the best of medicines. When people feel that important consequences (for themselves and others) hang on their acts, they are apt to act more wisely. It is not always easy to have that sense of responsibility toward a Federal Government. If we imagine that the Federal Government alone, or Federal, state and local governments alone can solve those problems, and that everyone else can stand by and play sidewalk superintendents we are deceiving ourselves." In his recent book, Kennedy deals with the same theme. John Gardner is a psychologist; Robert Kennedy is a politician. Neither has specific remedies for all that ails us, but both have diagnosed the disease of the national spirit. It is a dangerous disease if left untreated for too long; it may get beyond the reach of problem-solvers.
Despite all the professionals' insights about odds and strategies and subgroups, there is a widespread feeling here, based perhaps on nothing but many people's wishful thinking, that unexpected events will yet dominate this political year. If Robert Kennedy runs, he will evoke, with a new twist, the "let's get this country moving again" theme which ignited his brother's campaign in 1960, and which many observers think would make the difference this time. If he does not, and no one else does who can inject this spirit, then it is generally agreed that, barring international or domestic disasters of greater dimensions, the election will be decided according to who the crucial uncommitted electorate thinks looks better--or less bad--on their television screens. In that case, one of those campaign button merchants ought to be able to corner the 1968 market with the slogan "Hobson: Our only choice."