Cuomo appears to have the requisite toughness, although he also has a monkish streak (he keeps introspective diaries) and a more than casual interest in religion (he argues theology with archbishops). Dukakis's toughness is not so readily apparent. Like Cuomo's, it has never really been tested. The two politicians seem more similar when it comes to values. Both hold traditional ones--what Sawyer calls "the immigrant saga, better future for my kids, my father working his way up." Cuomo, however, has made a specialty of defending, at least rhetorically, the old Democratic politics: sharing, family, compassion, mutuality, and the aggressive use of government to protect people against adversity. That is the Democratic Party's old-time religion, and Cuomo gives a terrific revival speech. Dukakis cannot give that revival speech. Jesse Jackson can, which is one reason why he gave Dukakis trouble in the early primaries and caucuses.
In the end, however, Dukakis's pragmatism could be a great advantage. Dukakis is not tied to the old politics as firmly as Cuomo is, and so he is less likely to frighten voters who think the old-time religion sounds like taxing, spending, and inflation. Sawyer zeroed in on this difference when he observed that "the Democrat has got to have the overlay of the more pragmatic, sensible, and even-handed approach--not New Deal spending or deficits." He continued, "That is why Dukakis, in one sense, is almost a better model than Cuomo. He combines traditional Democratic values with modern, technocratic abilities and with pragmatism--the ability to get government, business, and labor to work together and solve problems." Cuomo supporters were apparently attracted to Dukakis's modernized version of the Democratic message. The exit polls from the New York primary showed that most Democrats who really wanted to vote for Cuomo ended up supporting Dukakis for President.
Sawyer warned that pragmatism and consensus politics can be taken too far. Nevertheless, he said, "that kind of thing is exactly the right position for this part of the country." Sawyer then articulated a rule that summarizes the reasons for the Democrats' success in New York: "You've got to have the old values but not the old politics." If the rule holds nationally and the Democrats follow it, they could find themselves back in the White House.
But first the democrats are going to have to figure out what to do about Texas. Since Texas became a state, in 1845, no Democrat has won the presidency without carrying it. Since 1952 Texas has gone Democratic four times--1960, 1964, 1968, and 1976. It obviously helped that Lyndon Johnson was on the ticket in 1960 and 1964. Johnson's influence, along with that of his then-Democratic ally Governor John Connally, probably made the difference in 1968 as well, when Hubert Humphrey carried the state by a narrow margin.
What will not help the Democrats this year is George Bush at the top of the Republican ticket. Texas is one of the states that Bush claims as his home (he maintains an address at a Houston hotel). Until he won this year's Republican presidential primary, Bush on his own had been on a losing streak in Texas. He was rejected in three statewide elections: for senator in 1964 and 1970, and the 1980 Republican presidential primary. Like thousands of others, Bush came to Texas to make his fortune in the oil business. He ended up representing a Houston district in Congress for two terms. In Texas, where chauvinism is a time-honored tradition, that may be enough to qualify him as a favorite son. What do the Democrats have to compete with that? The fact that Michael Dukakis speaks Spanish, for one thing.
And something else: an oil bust that has nearly caused the collapse of the Texas economy. Banks are failing, or teetering on the brink. Great fortunes have disappeared. Austin, Houston, and other Texas cities, overdeveloped in the 1970s and early 1980s, have the highest office-vacancy rates in the country. Unemployment in Texas has been at recession levels since 1983. "We're a Third World economy," said Tim Richardson, the editor of The Quorum Report, a Texas political newsletter. "We're debt-ridden, we're commodity-based, we're exporters." Indeed, the boom-bust cycle in Texas has run counter to the national economy. High oil prices in the 1970s and early 1980s created a boom in Texas but threw the nation's economy into turmoil. The process reversed in 1983. As oil prices collapsed, Texas went into a dizzying tailspin. Bumper stickers that read LET THE YANKEES FREEZE IN THE DARK were succeeded by LET THE TEXANS ROT IN THE SUN.
The effect of the oil bust on politics has been confused. Back in 1978 Texas Republicans scored a big breakthrough when they elected William Clements, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction (by a margin of eight tenths of one percent), and re-elected U.S. Senator John Tower (by a margin of one half of one percent). The Democrats came back in 1982, when Mark White defeated Clements for the governorship and a whole slate of progressive Democrats was elected to statewide office. Then, in 1984 and 1986, in the teeth of the oil bust, it was the Republicans who made the big gains.
Texas was one of the few states where Reagan had strong coattails in 1984. The party picked up five congressional seats, made significant gains in the state legislature, and increased its share of county-level offices by half. Two years later, in one of the great grudge matches of Texas history, Clements came back to defeat White and regain the governorship for the Republicans. "Normally, when we vote pocketbook, we move left," said Molly Ivins, a columnist for the Dallas Times Herald. "But the first thing we did when we had a chance to prove it was to elect this rich, right-wing Republican governor." Anti-incumbent voting had a lot to do with it. "We threw out the ins and put in the outs," Ivins said.
The Republicans have not exactly had an easy time of it, however. Last year the Texas legislature passed the largest tax increase in Texas history. In fact, it is reported to be the largest tax increase in any state's history. Governor Clements, who was already in trouble because of his involvement in a Southern Methodist University football scandal, infuriated Republicans by signing off on the tax bill, thereby violating his campaign pledge not to raise taxes. "He is a dead weight on the Republicans in Texas," said Ronnie Dugger, the publisher of the Texas Observer. Dugger called it "a Mecham problem," referring to the ex governor of Arizona who was impeached and removed from office this year.
Virtually every Republican I spoke to talked about the falloff in Republican fund-raising. Texas used to be an abundant source of support for right-wing campaigns all over the country--sort of the Republican Party's Malibu. No more. John Kelsey, a key operative in Texas Republican politics, explained that the oil bust hurt Republicans in two ways. "First," he said, "money has disappeared. Wealth has been eroded, which cuts down on discretionary political giving." The second problem stems from the grievances of people in the oil and gas business. "People think, I didn't get any support so I'm not going to give any support," Kelsey said.
For years now the Texas Republican Party has been making spectacular gains. Texas voted for Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. The Republicans gained a U.S. Senate seat in 1961 and have held it ever since. From 1978 to 1986 the number of Republican congressional seats rose from four to ten. The party's holdings have grown from four to six state senate seats, from twenty-two to fifty-six state house seats, and from eighty-seven to 410 county offices.
Lance Tarrance, a Houston Republican pollster, noted that Texas Republicans have done particularly well with two constituencies. One is young voters. "The Republican Party is driven today by a young vote," he told me. "That's why we have so many young state representatives and young members of Congress." The other is recent arrivals. According to Tarrance, about a quarter of Texas voters have moved to the state since 1970. His polls show that native Texans now compose less than half the electorate. "Most of these new Texans didn't know Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson," Tarrance observed. "They've known Jimmy Carter." According to Tarrance, if you ask Texans today how they normally vote, Democrats are only slightly ahead of Republicans. The Democratic political consultant George Shipley said, "Texas is like California and New York. It's a media state. It's a no-party state."
In Tarrance's view, the oil recession has ended the Republican surge, at least for the time being. What is over, he argued, is the bandwagon effect: "People said, 'The economy's great, Reagan's great, the Democrats are in bad shape. Maybe we ought to get on the bandwagon.' That sort of cheap vote we were getting has disappeared." I talked to Jack Martin, the chief operative for Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who sensed "a shift back." He said, "Every time Reagan gets on television and says the nation's in better shape than it has been economically in years, you've got these huge groups of Texans who say, 'What! Where?'"
This is not to say that Reagan--or Bush--is in deep trouble in Texas. As George Christian, formerly Lyndon Johnson's press secretary and now a political consultant in Austin, observed, "People don't really blame Reagan. They blame Saudi Arabia. They blame OPEC. We had a lot of problems in agriculture even before the oil collapse. But Reagan didn't get the flak for that. I think he deserved it." Tarrance noted that there has been some slippage in Reagan's job-approval rating in Texas, but it's still above the national average. The biggest complaint is that the Reagan Administration has no energy policy. "There is a perception that Ronald Reagan has neglected Texas," Shipley said. "Democrats talk about the national Republican policy of 'dismantling domestic producers' for the sake of 'cheap imported crude from nations that harbor terrorism.'" What oil people want, Shipley said, is "a stabilized and managed price of oil." But the federal government will have to do the stabilizing and managing, and that is anathema to Reaganites. The result is disappointment with Reagan but not large-scale political backlash.
Although Texas may be as bad off economically as Iowa, Texans are not voting like Iowans. That was clear in this year's Republican presidential primaries. George Bush was humiliated by his third-place finish in Iowa, where the Reagan Administration's farm policy was widely denounced. One month later Bush wiped out Bob Dole and Pat Robertson in Texas, where the Reagan Administration's energy policy was hardly discussed. George Bush does not strike most voters as a stereotypical Texan. Still, no Texan I spoke to seemed to begrudge Bush his favorite-son status, even though he was born and bred in New England and has no real track record in Texas politics. "It's kind of like the definition of bastard," Jack Raines, the Republican secretary of state of Texas, said. "Some of them are accidents of birth, and others are self-made. We define Texans the same way." Tim Richardson called Bush "a founding father" of the modern Texas Republican Party. "He literally was one of the first people to get it started. Of the three people who came to that first Republican meeting, George Bush was one of them."
"Moderate, conservative, or whatnot," George Christian said, "it's just socially acceptable to be for Bush." However Texans may feel about the Reagan Administration's energy policy--and Bush's opposition to an oil import fee--everyone knows that Bush made his fortune in the Texas oil business. Tom Loeffler, a former Republican congressman and a candidate for governor in 1986, said, "Texans know there's only one man in the presidential race right now that understands the industry." Bill Miller, a Republican political consultant, put it more succinctly: "In the clutch, he's ours."
That Texans accept a transplant like Bush as a favorite son says less about Bush than it does about Texas. Texas has changed. In fact, everyone I spoke to there was eager to tell me how much it has changed. Ronnie Dugger, who founded the Texas Observer in 1954, described the changes this way: "The first fifteen years I was watching Texas politics, liberals were like rocks on the plain. You just saw a plain of conservatives that was powerful, deeply organized, and dominated by the oil industry and racism. You had a state that was totally predictable and utterly one-party. Then it changed. Texas has become like the rest of the country. You've got a feminist movement, you've got a black movement, you've got a Hispanic movement, you've got a gay movement, you've got women running cities. You've got a majority of progressives in the top state offices. You've got Republicans winning congressional seats all over the state, and the Democrats holding on. Overall," Dugger concluded, "it's a much more civilized state."
Molly Ivins had a different take on these developments. "The biggest change is that we're now a two-party state," she said. "I disapprove. I went off to Minnesota when I was a young reporter, and I thought that I had landed in heaven. I just went around going, 'Look, there are two political parties here, and they are both progressive and there is no corruption and it's all like my high school civics textbook. This is the most wonderful place in the world. Gosh, if we could only have two political parties in Texas, it would just be happiness.' Then I came back and noticed that someone had actually thought of starting another political party in this state--one that was to the right of Texas Democrats! That is ground I thought didn't even exist."
But the emergence of a competitive Republican Party did not end up pulling the Democrats to the right, as Ivins feared. Instead, it freed the Democratic Party to become more progressive. What the Republicans did was pull a lot of conservative voters out of the Democratic Party. The action began to shift to the Republican primaries and to general elections, events that had had little meaning when Texas was a one-party state.
"As people have left the Democratic primaries," Christian said, "it has tended to make the Democratic Party more liberal. It has given labor more power. It has certainly given Hispanics and blacks more power. And it has given card-carrying liberals more power. The net result is that a liberal can be nominated for high office in the Democratic primary." One such is Michael Dukakis, who proved his national appeal by winning the Democratic presidential primary in Texas this year. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, Texas Democratic primary voters were 14 percent Hispanic and 13 percent black. Self-described conservatives barely outnumbered self-described liberals, 33 to 29 percent. Tim Richardson described a new coalition of blacks, Hispanics, gays, labor, feminists, and white liberals that has come to power in Texas cities. "The mayor of Houston is a woman, the mayor of Dallas is a woman, the mayor of San Antonio is Hispanic. They've all been elected by this coalition. The Democratic coalition in the urban centers will become the Democratic coalition statewide." He added, however, "It will take some time; 1988 may not be the year."
I met with Bob Brischetto, of the Southwest Voter Research Institute, in San Antonio, the nation's principal center for research on the politics of Hispanic Americans, to discuss their key swing vote in Texas. Brischetto noted that the voting-age Hispanic population in Texas had virtually doubled in the 1970s. As of 1986 Hispanics composed 25.5 percent of the total state population. Their electoral power is diminished, however, because an especially high proportion of them are under voting age and because they have a low citizenship rate (about half of voting-age Texas Hispanics are American citizens), low voter registration, and low turnout. While Hispanics constituted 22 percent of the total voting-age population in 1986, they made up 20 percent of voting-age citizens, 13.5 percent of registered voters, and only eight percent of actual voters.
Brischetto observed that "Hispanic turnout rates in general elections lag behind the state average by twenty percentage points." In primaries, however, the situation is reversed. "When you look at Democratic primary elections, Mexican-American turnout has exceeded the state average since 1980." In part this voting pattern is due to an overall decline in Democratic primary participation. "Hispanics have maintained their participation in primaries more than non-Hispanics," Brischetto said. It is also due to strong local organizations that get out the Hispanic vote, particularly in San Antonio, where Democratic primaries are highly competitive and where there are also many Hispanic candidates on the ballot. In fact, Michael Dukakis built his Texas primary victory on the support of Hispanic voters, who, according to the exit polls, gave him 54 percent of their vote, as compared with 15 percent for Jesse Jackson.
Virtually every Republican I spoke to expressed the view that the party could win Hispanic votes on the basis of intense patriotism and "family values." "Republicans philosophically have more affinity toward Hispanic culture than they do toward black culture," Lance Tarrance said. As a result, "Republicans are getting competitive with the Hispanic vote." They still have a long way to go, however. Exit polls taken by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project show Reagan getting 25 percent of the Texas Hispanic vote in 1984 and Clements getting 19 percent in 1986. In the 1986 race for attorney general the Republicans nominated a Mexican-American candidate, but even he managed to win only 39 percent of the Hispanic vote.
According to Brischetto's polls, Mexican-Americans are more conservative than Anglo voters on issues related to religion, such as abortion and school prayer. On an issue that relates to discrimination, however, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, they are more liberal than Anglos. As for foreign policy, Hispanic views on military aid to the contras were exactly the same as Anglo views; the two groups were equally opposed. On the issue of increasing defense spending, Hispanic voters were more negative than Anglo voters in both 1984 and 1986.
Some of the biggest differences occur on economic issues. Compared with Anglo voters, Hispanics were far less approving of cuts in social programs and of President Reagan's economic policies than were Anglo voters. In Brischetto's opinion, the Republican Party's social- and foreign-policy conservatism probably works with Cuban-Americans but not with Mexican-Americans. The reason is that Mexican-American voters are motivated primarily by economic concerns. "We always ask, 'What are the most important problems facing Mexican-Americans in your community?'" Brischetto said. "Unemployment comes up. Inflation came up in 1984. For Mexican-Americans, the issues that really count are the economic ones." That is why they continue to vote heavily Democratic. It is also why, as Tarrance pointed out, Republicans are making inroads "among upwardly mobile, urban Hispanic voters, those in the second or third generation from entry--the small businessman, the small insurance agent, the small doctor." What the data suggest is that Hispanics are behaving more or less like traditional American ethnic groups. Those who are moving in vote Democratic. Those who are moving up vote increasingly Republican.
Tarrance described Texas's leading Hispanic politician, the San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, as "a very precious commodity." He explained, "He talks like a Republican, he has the air of a Republican, but he's a Democrat." Ronnie Dugger described Cisneros as "a moderate liberal with strong connections to the Anglo business community." Dugger added, "He's a technocrat. He's a compromiser. He's a consensus-seeker." "I always knew the first Chicano governor of Texas would be an 'Aggie,' " Molly Ivins said, referring to Texas A&M, Cisneros's alma mater and a bastion of good ole-boy Texas conservatism. The political consultant George Shipley called Cisneros "a Tory Democrat" who has been "elevated to the status of an institution."
What could be more appealing to national Democrats than a Hispanic politician who doesn't frighten the white establishment? In fact, Cisneros was one of the candidates Walter Mondale interviewed for the vice presidential nomination in 1984. "He is the anointed," Ivins said, "as Barbara Jordan was once the anointed black woman."
Cisneros might make an interesting choice for the Democratic ticket in 1988. After all, Texas is a critical state. His nomination as Vice President would keep Jesse Jackson quiet. Jackson couldn't utter a word of protest about putting a Hispanic on the ticket, any more than he could complain about Mondale's choice of Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984: that's the whole idea behind the Rainbow Coalition. Moreover, a Cisneros candidacy could be the key to mobilizing the vast unregistered Hispanic electorate concentrated in states of some electoral importance, like California, New York, Illinois, Florida, and Texas. There is one big drawback to the idea, however: even though, by disposition, Dukakis is really a New England Yankee and Cisneros is a southern Tory (they both have degrees from Harvard), a Dukakis-Cisneros ticket might be a little too spicy for the American electorate to digest.
If you want evidence that Texas really has changed, consider this: liberals are not winning just Democratic primaries in Texas. They are winning general elections as well. The big breakthrough came in 1982, when a whole slate of progressive Democrats won statewide office: Jim Mattox as attorney general, Ann Richards as state treasurer, Jim Hightower as agriculture commissioner, and Garry Mauro as land commissioner. The Democratic sweep went all the way up to the top of the ballot--Lloyd Bentsen for senator, William Hobby for lieutenant governor (both closer to the mold of traditional Tory Democrats), and Mark White for governor (a moderate). Not only were liberals elected but they were all re-elected in 1986, when White lost the governorship. Several of them have signaled an intention to move up in 1990. Hightower intends to challenge Phil Gramm for the Senate, while Mattox and Richards will be running against each other in the Democratic primary for governor.
George Christian said, "1982 was the first time liberals won the down ballot races." What explains their success? To begin with, 1982 was a good year for Democrats nationwide. The country was experiencing the worst recession since the 1930s, and the Democrats made a net gain of twenty-six seats in the House of Representatives. There was also the fact that the Texas liberals faced weak Republican opponents.
Lance Tarrance's theory is that "lower-level offices are not ideological. It's hard to make an ideological statement about the land commissioner, or even the state treasurer." He believes that liberals can win statewide elections at the "administrative" level but not at the "representational" level, the level at which political leaders have to represent the "cultural life space" of Texas. No office is more representational than the presidency. That is why it may be hard to infer from the success of liberals in down-ballot races that a liberal presidential ticket can carry Texas in 1988. In fact, Tarrance argues that presidential years are the hardest on Texas liberals. "They have to run with the national party," he said, "and they're unmasked by their colleagues up in Washington."
When I put Tarrance's theory to Molly Ivins, her response captured the long-suffering nature of Texas liberalism. "During my entire lifetime in this state," she said, "you could go along for year after year without a single candidate on the ballot that a progressive Democrat could vote for with any enthusiasm. Those of us who are liberal Democrats in this state are simply artists at discerning the shades, the hairline differences that prove that one sorry troglodyte is a trifle better than the next. We are just the best people in the world at sorting out the lesser of two evils. So for us to have this much talent in statewide political office is just mind-boggling. To say they can't break through, hell, they never even broke into office before. How do we know they can't go up? We have no idea."
There is one other reason why the Democrats did so well in 1982, and it is one that is relevant to 1988 as well. In 1982 "you had Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Hobby spending millions of dollars to turn the vote out for the whole Democratic ticket," Christian explained. "It worked. They elected Mark White. They elected the whole Democratic slate. It was the first time ever that the Democrats mounted a well-financed get-out-the-vote effort." Virtually every Texan I spoke to was in awe of what he or she called the "Bentsen machine." George Shipley told me that he worked for Bentsen's campaign in 1976, when Jimmy Carter carried Texas. "The Carter guys came to us every morning and took their orders. Carter did not say a thing impacting Texas without clearing it with Bentsen. It was very much a subservient role. Bentsen called the shots, and Carter basically said, 'I'm for Lloyd Bentsen.'" Bentsen carried Texas with 57 percent. Carter carried Texas with 51 percent.
Bentsen is up for re-election in 1988. I asked John Kelsey, the Republican fund-raiser, whether Bentsen could pull a Democratic presidential ticket through this year. "He would definitely have an effect, without any question," Kelsey said. "He would have a significant effect on turnout. If you had a man running against Bentsen, he wouldn't pull as many votes on the Republican side as Bentsen would pull on the Democratic side." Kelsey admitted that the Republicans would probably not give a lot of support to Bentsen's opponent this year, "simply because a tough Bentsen race might bring out a lot of Democratic voters and endanger the Republican presidential ticket." "The presidential ticket has to be acceptable to Bentsen," George Shipley said. "That's the bottom line in Texas. The finest organization in this state is the one that's principally Lloyd Bentsen's and is shared in part with Bill Hobby. It's the Tory Democratic organization. The first guy who put it together was Lyndon Johnson. The second generation was John Connally. The third and fourth generation has been Lloyd Bentsen."
When I spoke to Jack Martin, the Bentsen operative, he confirmed what Shipley had said. "Yes, there's a structure," Martin said. "Senator Bentsen has maintained coordinators in all two hundred fifty-four counties year in and year out. He keeps a well-oiled organization in place at the grass roots level." I asked him about 1988. "If we have a serious, well-funded opponent, we'll do everything we can not just to beat him but to beat him soundly. One effect will be that voter turnout will increase. Lots of people will be beneficiaries of that." Martin explained that that is exactly what happened in 1982. "We put together one of the most sophisticated pay-to get-out-the-vote mechanisms in the country at that time. It had never been done in Texas on the Democratic side. Clements had introduced it in 1978. We took the same strategy and moved it over to the Democratic side. I think it's fair to say that Senator Bentsen's organization and his phone banks and his campaign pushed the turnout way up and caused everybody on that ballot to benefit."
Bentsen's opponent this year, Representative Beau Boulter, from the Texas Panhandle, does not look very formidable. But, Jack Martin acknowledged, "we've got this presidential thing above us." A strong Bush vote could very well endanger Bentsen's re-election, even against a weak opponent. As Lance Tarrance put it, "If anybody should be scared, it ought to be Bentsen, especially if the state goes for the national Republican ticket by a margin of 500,000 votes or more." According to Shipley, a "united front" campaign worked in 1982 and it could work again in 1988. "The day Carter lost, Bentsen got very serious about his 1982 re-election," Shipley said. "Bentsen and Hobby decided a year in advance that they were going to run an integrated, united Democratic effort and that they were going to bring a Democratic governor to Texas. The messages were tailored all the way down. Fifteen congressmen participated in it, and we got the vote out."
"Dukakis could win Texas," Shipley said, "provided that during the nominating campaign and immediately thereafter he communicates the proper messages to the leadership of this state. He has to show Democrats in the business community that he can do business in Texas. Maybe promise to have a summit meeting on energy policy within the first thirty days of his Administration. If the united-front scenario is there, it's do able."
For all the changes in Texas, certain themes remain constant. One is a certain "meanness," a ten-gallon ferocity in Texas politics. You can find throbbing veins of it in both parties. John Hildreth, of Common Cause, sees it in the Democrat Jim Mattox and in the Republican Phil Gramm. "They are so much alike in style," he said. "They don't just want to beat you. They want to knock you down and then stomp on you." Shipley offered a broader interpretation of the meanness of Texas politics. "There is more tolerance for social inequality in Texas than in any other state," he said. "What we do here for the mentally retarded and the mentally ill is a disgrace. What we do in the way of health care for the poor and the uninsured is a disgrace. What we do here in the way of our prison system is a disgrace. Our supreme court is a national joke."
I got the flavor of what Shipley was talking about when I interviewed George Strake, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Strake was complaining that "if we don't learn to curtail some of our spending habits in Texas, we're going to end up like the federal government." I reminded him that the courts had condemned the Texas prison system and the system for treating the mentally retarded as unconstitutional, and that they were threatening to do the same with the system for funding public education.
"I'm not a prison expert," Strake said, "but I can tell you that the Ferguson unit that houses the eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds has a better cafeteria and a better chapel than I had when I was in college. They have training facilities for auto repair, for road making, for TV repair, for barbering, for law. I think we have gone overboard on facilities for prisoners."
Meanness has deep roots in Texas politics, but so does another, quite different quality--namely, populism. As Shipley pointed out, the populist strain shows up in the structure of Texas government: "very divided authority, very weak governor and so forth." The current master of Texas populism is Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. "There's no doubt that he's one of the most clever politicians around in terms of using the media to attract attention," Hildreth said. "He's funny. Talk about people laughing. But that's also how people notice you and respond to you. He has a very faithful core of support around the state, primarily responding to his populist message."
"What Hightower has done in the agriculture department," Hildreth explained, "is take a lazy, good-for-nothing agency that checked scales and eggs and killed fire ants and turned it into a center for economic development. He's been very successful with the blue-collar redneck voter." Hightower was also the only white statewide-elected official to endorse Jesse Jackson for President this year. The 1990 Senate race will determine whether left-wing populism is a serious force in Texas, or whether Hightower is, as Jack Raines described him, "all boots and belt buckle." In any case, the contest between Hightower and Gramm will be a classic Texas showdown: the leading Texas populist versus the meanest politician in Texas.
Tim Richardson argues that the populist economic theme could be a powerful one for the Democrats in 1988. He thinks that the Republicans are vulnerable in Texas because of their stubborn ideological insistence on free-market policies. "Gramm calls a lot of the shots in the Republican Party," Richardson said, "and I think he's out of step with one basic thing: government has a role in rebuilding the state economy. That idea is anathema to him. He refuses to offer any kind of governmental solution to an economy that is in depression conditions in many parts of this state." The Texas populist tradition goes back to Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. "There is a big constituency for government-assisted economic development measures," Richardson says. "I think the constituency is there for defending state services."
The Democrats could win an important prize if they offered an economic development message. "The Republicans," Richardson says, "are alienating the business community. Business realizes that the future labor force is being shredded by rotten services, high dropout rates, crime, drugs, poor education, and illiteracy." Let the Republicans run on low taxes. The Democrats will run on making Texas a first-class state.
If Richardson's economic-development theme sounds familiar, it is because that's exactly what Michael Dukakis says he did in Massachusetts -use government in collaboration with business to direct resources and manage economic growth. Can the Democrats sell a northeastern urban ethnic liberal in Texas--against an oilman and a favorite son? The conventional wisdom in Texas is no.
"Unless Bush falls on his face," George Christian said, "I can't imagine him not carrying Texas." Lance Tarrance told me that Mark White once said when he was governor that the Democrats could hold Texas with respect to statewide offices. "But as for the Democrats holding Texas for the national party, White said, 'I can't do that.'"
Shipley warned, however, that it would be a mistake for Democrats to write Texas off as "an automatic Bush state." "The conventional wisdom might be to do that. But Bush is not perceived as a winner in Texas." There are any number of reasons why the Democrats have a chance to carry Texas this year. Texas is no longer as parochial as it used to be. Jack Martin said, "This state is capable of getting caught up in a national discussion of the issues. That was clearly the case when Carter beat Ford here. And it was clearly the case when Reagan beat Carter. Reagan beat a southerner in this state. To me, that really had nothing to do with the campaign these two men ran in Texas. It had to do with Texans being part of the national discussion." It helps that Michael Dukakis is a relatively safe Democrat with a non-ideological style and a strong economic development message. It helps that the economic situation in Texas is drastic. It helps that there is a strong national mood for change. And it helps most of all that Lloyd Bentsen is up for re-election.
The Reagan revolution, it can be argued, began exactly ten years ago in California. On June 6, 1978, California primary voters voted 65 to 35 percent in favor of Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann property-tax limitation measure. It was an exhilarating experience. The voters literally took the law into their own hands and, defying the ominous predictions of the political establishment, voted themselves one of the biggest tax cuts in American political history. Tax-revolt fever immediately spread across the country, and state after state passed measures explicitly imitative of Proposition 13. This wave of anti-tax, anti-government sentiment culminated two years later in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and in the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. Interestingly, Reagan himself had virtually nothing to do with Proposition 13. His own tax initiative had failed at the California polls in 1973, and he was wary of supporting the more radical 1978 measure.
One of Reagan's first actions as President, and the one with the most decisive implications for the future, was the 1981 federal income-tax cut. Reagan did to the federal government what Proposition 13 did to California: he pulled the revenue plug. The result in both California and the nation was a new era of government retrenchment. The symbol of the Reagan era in American politics is the tremendous federal budget deficit. The symbol of the Proposition 13 era in California is the steady deterioration of public services. Both systems have been protected by coalitions of voters sharing an interest in low taxes and limited government. Reagan presides over this coalition in Washington, and George Deukmejian, Reagan's loyal ally from his days as governor of California, presides over the coalition back home. Even though both chief executives were elected, and then reelected by bigger majorities, it is not clear that their limited-government coalitions have put down deep roots. Both Reagan and Deukmejian face hostile legislatures controlled by Democrats. And both nationwide and in California a growing body of evidence suggests that public sentiment is shifting. Because the Reagan revolution started in California, any signs of backtracking there will have portentous implications for its future.
Proposition 13 was not only the one measure. It was a movement. It gave rise to cuts in inventory and inheritance taxes, and to the indexation of state income-tax rates to inflation. According to Gray Davis, the state comptroller, the aggregate revenue loss resulting from Proposition 13 amounts to $20 billion a year, or half the current state budget. It also gave rise, in 1979, to the Gann initiative, which limits spending by state and local governments to an amount equivalent to their 1978-1979 budgets adjusted for inflation and population growth. The spending cap can be overriden only through special local initiatives.
The Gann initiative seemed innocuous in 1979, because it had provisions for inflation and population growth. There was no provision for the expansion of public needs, however. As it turned out, the spending cap was not a problem so long as inflation remained high. But inflation dropped, and last year, for the first time, state spending bumped up against the Gann limit. As a result, the state wrote rebate checks to California taxpayers totaling more than $1 billion. According to the California pollster Mervin Field, a large majority of Californians favored using the money for education. In fact, an organized campaign asked taxpayers to turn over their rebate checks to their local school districts. In the view of Robert Naylor, the Republican state chairman, Governor Deukmejian "risked looking insensitive" on the education issue by getting involved in a dispute with the state superintendent of public instruction. The Gann initiative would have permitted turning the money over to local districts that had not hit their spending limits. The governor wouldn't hear of it.
Many Californians I spoke to believed that Proposition 13 has paralyzed the political system and made it unresponsive to shifts in public sentiment. "It was a psychological problem exacerbated by lack of leadership," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a California political writer. "I sense that public opinion has turned." According to Tom Quinn, who ran the state's environmental regulatory services under Governor Jerry Brown, "There have been major retrenchments in terms of any kind of planning for the future. We're not building highways. We're not thinking about how we're going to provide transportation twenty years from now. This is becoming a lousy place to live." Field told me that, according to his polls, the California public has increasingly come to acknowledge "a gradual, obvious, palpable deterioration of public services." He saw no evidence of a counterrevolution, however. "The public still likes Proposition 13," Field said. "Any effort to repeal it would be suicidal."
The key to California politics is, of course, the state's vast middle class. It was their revolt, after all, that created Proposition 13, the Gann initiative, and, ultimately, the Reagan revolution. The concerns of middle-class Californians have clearly been drifting away from taxes and toward public services, whose amount and quality inescapably impinge on the lives of all Californians. But how far? Talking to Californians, one gets different images of the middle-class voter. "The middle class feels shortchanged," said Davis, who is contemplating making a run for governor in 1990. "How can their children compete in an information society if forty-six other states are investing more in the future than we are? At some point that feeling will permit a more progressive use of the money that comes into the state." A member of the California assembly offered a slightly different image of the middle-class voter: "People are driving around, frustrated, listening to their car radios, choking, spending two and a half hours a day in an automobile to go to work for seven hours," he said, "only to be told that it is a profile in courage to raise taxes and take more money out of their checkbook." This defense of the middle-class taxpayer came from none other than Tom Hayden, the former sixties radical and now a Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica.
It is a case of competing cliches. On the one hand, the California voter is an individualist, suspicious and distrustful of government. Michael Berman, a political consultant, told me, "Californians have a perfect understanding that government is not a major factor in their lives. People see their potential here as more a function of the individual and his abilities and less a function of government doing something for them." On the other hand, the pollster Richard Maullin said, "The great population influx that occurred during and after World War Two has been of people without tremendous means, who depend on the public sector for a lot of the higher standard of living they enjoy here. The state's economy and its good life have benefited from a willingness to tax itself and put money into public enterprise."
I asked Kevin Starr, a noted California historian, to sort out the inconsistent images for me. "The federal government was the midwife to the western states," he said. "These states had no previous sovereignties, no previous identifications, no cultural traditions." He described the relationship of the federal government to westerners as "almost parental," adding, "The federal government is perceived with the apprehension of a child to a parent, with all the possibilities of affirmation and repudiation." In other words, Californians have an ambivalent attitude toward government. They want government to provide for them but they resent its control.
In Starr's view, the New Deal political culture never really caught on in California. "The New Deal didn't settle in here in the same way, and it was thrown off early." The New Deal culture is essentially collectivist and redistributive: use my tax money to help those less fortunate. At its best, it is Mario Cuomo's vision of a society based on sharing, family, compassion, and mutuality. In California, however, the kind of government people want and expect is the public-works culture that has its roots in the older progressive tradition. The essential idea is that government should provide universally available benefits and services like public education, water resources, and highways. It is a uniquely middle-class view of government: use my tax money in ways that will benefit me, along with everybody else. It is this public-works culture, Starr argued, that is reasserting itself ten years after Proposition 13.
Starr's theory helps to explain a prototypical Californian like George Deukmejian. Sal Russo, a political consultant who has worked for Deukmejian, said that "when he was elected, Deukmejian wanted to be known as the governor who rebuilt California." But he got himself boxed in on the issue of a tax increase. He cannot raise revenues because of his no tax-increase pledge. The Democratic legislature "prevents him from cutting things he might otherwise cut to put the money to better use." And the costs of rebuilding the state's infrastructure would be astronomical. "We started to cost it out," Russo said. "You couldn't figure out a way to pay for all of it." Deukmejian is in the classic middle-class squeeze between a commitment to low taxes and a commitment to public works.
Peter Kelly, the state Democratic Party chairman, put his finger on the key difference between California under Proposition 13 and the federal government under Ronald Reagan. "Here you had less money and you spent less," Kelly said. "Nationally, you had less money and you spent more." Sentiment in California has turned around to the extent that Democrats now cautiously endorse the need for higher taxes. In former governor Jerry Brown's view, "The tax implication of the plan must not be the salient message, but rather the vision has to be powerful enough that the tax is just a small piece of it, and not all that striking." Republicans now cautiously endorse the need for higher spending. Naylor, the Republican chairman, told me, "There is certainly a change of sentiment. But it isn't for throwing money at problems. It's for saying, 'Here's a specific need. We think money will solve this specific need.' It's not a search for more social programs. People see certain kinds of services that don't have enough money."
I asked everyone I spoke to whether it is now safe for Democrats to talk about more spending in California. Almost everyone gave the same answer: "Yes, but..." The conditions all amounted to more or less the same thing. "You have to talk about spending on things that benefit an awful lot of people," Richard Maullin said. "You cannot spend money to take care of small groups." Chip Nielsen, a Republican activist from San Francisco, said, "If you could take your tax check and pay for particular services, things you really get your return for, everyone would do it gladly." "Show people what they're getting," Tom Quinn said. "It had better be pretty specific. For instance, if I'm paying five cents more per gallon of gasoline, show me how it's going to take me half an hour instead of an hour to get to work five years from now." Clinton Reilly, a Democratic political consultant, put it this way: "I pay my taxes, so what are you going to do for me--not what are you going to do for someone else? Unless we can give people something back for their tax money, the Republicans are going to be stronger by saying, we're not going to take it in the first place."
Public works, like freeways, and public services, like fire fighting and crime prevention, are fine. They serve a specific, visible need and are universally available. "Social programs" are not fine. They are programs aimed at creating social change and benefiting particular groups. That is precisely the lesson that the national Democratic Party learned, or should have learned, from the Reagan era. The only social programs that are politically secure are Entitlements that benefit everybody, like Social Security and Medicare. It is much harder to sustain support for targeted programs, like welfare, urban mass transit, and student loans. The reverse is true of taxes. It is dangerous to propose a general tax increase. Instead, Democrats have to talk about user fees, designated revenues, and requiring employers to pay mandated benefits.
The message to national Democrats is, if you want to sell your program in California, keep spending as broad as possible and taxes as specific as possible.
There are many contradictions in California politics. Registered Democrats consistently outnumber registered Republicans; Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, the California congressional delegation, and almost all state offices below that of governor. But California has voted Republican in every presidential election since Harry Truman, with the exception of the Johnson landslide. Give the Republicans California's forty-seven electoral votes and you boost them a sixth of the way to an electoral-college majority. The national Democratic Party has a tendency to do just that. Democratic strategists often look at California and see that it is a state where the party can compete. California votes very much like the rest of the country. Over the past five presidential elections Republicans have won an average of 53 percent of the national vote and Democrats have averaged 42 percent. The averages for California are exactly the same. In 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon by a national margin of 0.2 percent, Nixon carried California by 0.5 percent. Carter won the nation's popular vote by 2.1 percent in 1976; he lost California by 1.7 percent.
Seeing that California is winnable, Democrats then try to figure out what it would take to win it. The answer is, a lot of money and a lot of time. David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant, estimated that a statewide campaign for governor can cost upwards of $10 million. Statewide campaigns in California are conducted almost entirely on television, and the state has several of the largest and most expensive television markets in the country. A presidential candidate, moreover, has to spend a lot of time traveling to and from what Richard Scammon, the election analyst, calls "the trans-desert republic." Having taken a long, hard look at the California numbers, Democrats usually decide to make a token effort there and concentrate instead on, say, Ohio. They rationalize their decision by pointing out that the Democratic nominee failed to win the California primary--as was the case in 1976, 1980, and 1984.
Tom Hayden says, "The national Democratic Party will not invest in California. They take money out as if it's a colony and put nothing back in. In August they'll be out here with their phony advance men promising us that they are going to go all the way in California. But privately we know that they will do that only to keep up appearances long enough to rip off more money. Then they'll yank the tent and call it quits in late September. They don't understand California, they don't like California, they don't want to even think of California as a Democratic state. It's like they're run by the mind of Woody Allen."
If the Democrats make no serious effort and the Republicans have a decent candidate, then the Republicans have an edge in California. Why, then, do Democrats do so well in state elections? Because Democrats in California often make an extraordinary effort and Republicans often put up terrible candidates. Senator Alan Cranston, for example, beat extremely weak right-wing opponents in 1968, 1974, and 1980. When the Republicans finally nominated a serious opponent, in 1986, Cranston ran a tough, well managed campaign that is widely acknowledged as one of the best in recent California history. And he barely won, with 50.8 percent of the vote. Almost every Republican I spoke to attributed the Democrats' advantage in the state legislature and Congress to the Democrats' brilliant--and controversial--reapportionment following the 1980 census.
Still, several factors have worked to the Republicans' advantage in recent years. One is the anti-tax movement and the trend toward fiscal conservatism. Another is the anti-crime backlash, which has led to setbacks for liberals on issues like gun control and the death penalty. George Deukmejian, more than any other politician, epitomizes the anti tax, law-and-order mentality of the California middle class. Clint Reilly told me, "The California electorate is primarily the upwardly mobile white middle class. What do you offer voters who feel they already have everything, except what Republicans offer, which is that they can have more than they've got? The Democratic Party has no message for the haves."
Reilly noted that the Democrats' lead in party registration has shifted from five-to-three to about five-to-four in recent years. According to Naylor, the Republican chairman, "Democratic registration is at its lowest since the Great Depression. Republican registration is at its highest since the early 1950s. We're closing the gap. The Democrats are now registering only marginally more voters than we are." I asked Naylor what he found were the best pools among which to recruit new Republican voters in California. He named two. "New residents are by far the best, particularly people who have bought houses in vast new residential developments. Number two is new citizens, especially Iranians, Vietnamese, and Central Americans." These new immigrant groups tend to be either strongly middle class in outlook, strongly anticommunist, or both. As Reilly observed about Asians, "They don't really look to government as the source of their economic well-being. They're very skeptical and fearful of government."
On the other hand, being the son of Greek immigrants may help Michael Dukakis to appeal to these voters. "Before the U.S. government's recent offer of amnesty to illegal aliens ended," Mark Shields wrote recently in The Washington Post,
"immigrants from 170 countries applied at the Los Angeles Immigration and Naturalization Service office. That's right, 170! California is the leading destination for the immigrants of the world. According to Rep. Bob Matsui, Sacramento Democrat and early Dukakis endorser, his candidate will do well because "we are a state of immigrants, not basically made up of Western Europeans, but people from southern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America who will relate a lot better to Dukakis than to Bush. "
The Republicans have had one other advantage in California presidential races. A Californian has been on the ticket almost every time in the postwar era--Nixon five times and Reagan twice. Kelly, the Democratic chairman, called it "the cheapest insurance policy in America." If George Bush wants a little insurance, all he needs to do is put Deukmejian on the ticket as Vice President. The only problem is that Deukmejian has said over and over again that he is not interested in running for Vice President. If he won, he would have to turn the state over to the Democrats. As Ken Kahachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter and Deukmejian adviser, noted, "Right now the governor is the lone Republican state constitutional officer. He's got judicial appointments and two thousand patronage appointments. It would tear down whatever cachet he's built up with the party here."
"He'd have a lot of explaining to do," said the Republican political consultant Stu Spencer, pointing out that only by holding the governorship will the Republicans be able to veto another Democratic gerrymander after the 1990 census. "The Republicans would not forgive him," said Chip Nielsen, a Republican activist. "They'd say, 'You're the guy who turned California over to the Democrats. We didn't control reapportionment, and because of that, we ended up with twelve Democratic congressmen who shouldn't be there and a legislature still dominated by the Democrats.'" Nevertheless, Deukmejian is a Reagan loyalist, and if the President and the Vice President made the case to him personally that the preservation of the Reagan legacy is at stake, he might find it hard to refuse a spot on the ticket. After all, if he lost, he would still be governor, and if he won, he would be Vice President of the United States.
But how much would Deukmejian really help the ticket? He barely defeated a black Democratic candidate in 1982 and has never acquired much of a reputation outside the state--or much of a personal following inside the state. "He doesn't enjoy the campaign," Sal Russo said. "He would not be a happy campaigner. I don't think he'd do well on the stump." Moreover, the California insurance policy does not always pay off. Thomas Dewey put the governor of California, Earl Warren, on the ticket in 1948 and ended up losing the state narrowly to Harry Truman. And Earl Warren was one of the most popular governors in California history (he won both the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor in 1946, when cross-filing was allowed, and got re-elected with 92 percent of the vote).
If the election is as close as many observers expect, then it may all come down to which way California goes. And California could go either way. The Washington Post described George Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, as voicing "the bipartisan consensus" when he said this spring that "California will be critical." Recently the Post asked whether Michael Dukakis could put together a winning coalition without carrying a single southern or Rocky Mountain state. He could. By carrying the major northeastern, midwestern, and West Coast states, the Democrats could end up with 311 electoral votes, or forty-one more than a majority. But they could not do it without California's forty-seven. "California has got to be the Democrats' number-one target," said the Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin.
Bush's strength in California can be summarized in a single word: Reagan. The California Republican party is a shadow of Ronald Reagan, and Bush has been careful to stay in Reagan's shadow. But California voters are notoriously trendy. They got tired of Reagan once before, in 1974. After Reagan's two terms as governor, Californians decided to try something different. They elected Jerry Brown.
I asked the various Californians I spoke to what kind of message might work for the Democrats in California. Clint Reilly said, "The message must be for government to help business grow, to help the economy grow, to be a partner with business in creating jobs and growth. They also need a strong commonsense profile--tough on crime, for efficiency and economy in government." In other words, a very middle-class message. I asked Reilly how, with that kind of message, the Democrats could distinguish themselves from the Republicans. "On the quality-of-life issues, like the environment and education," he replied, "areas where government has to be active." Kelly, the Democratic chairman, essentially agreed. "There are no great ideological differences that the public perceives between the parties at the moment," he said. "There will probably not be an ideological difference over the deficit. It's not going to be the liberal plan versus the conservative plan. It's going to be one person's idea over another's." Therefore, he concluded, the election will be decided by "the appearance of competence and the appearance of leadership."
In that case, Michael Dukakis should make a very nice appearance. Competence is his issue, and his record in Massachusetts is one of efficiency, economy, and partnership between government and business. Indeed, the California Republicans I spoke to saw Dukakis as the most formidable potential Democratic nominee. In a May Los Angeles Ames poll Dukakis was running 17 points ahead of Bush. "I think Dukakis probably knows how to communicate with California voters," Ken Kahachigian said. "There would be a big-state affinity with his management of Massachusetts. He is perceived as a good manager." Larry Thomas, a former press secretary to Vice President Bush, described Dukakis as "a good communicator with a conservative Democratic message. He's got something he can point to and show that it worked. He's not just another fellow from the legislative branch."
Bob Naylor, the Republican state chairman, went even further in praising Dukakis. He told me, "Dukakis has some of the same appeal as Deukmejian. With his record, I think, he would be able to tap into almost all the themes that Deukmejian has tapped into in this state." "What themes?" I asked. "He got his state's economy moving again," Naylor said. "He carried out stringent tax-cutting measures. He also made the state live within its means. He represents high tech and economic growth. Massachusetts is the flagship economy for the East Coast, as California is for the West Coast." "One more thing," he added, tying the two Dukes together: "in California we're used to ethnics."
THE BATTLE FOR THE WHITE MIDDLE CLASS
The real battleground of American Politics is not a state. It is a constituency--the white middle class. The white middle class is such a vast and diffuse constituency that it is easier to characterize it by what it is not than by what it is. It is not rich and it is not poor. Nor is it conservative or liberal in any consistent way. Indeed, it is not ideological at all, preferring to see issues in practical rather than moralistic terms. White middle-class voters are capable of supporting a moderate Republican like Governor Thompson, of Illinois, a conservative Republican like Governor Deukmejian, of California, a moderate Democrat like Senator Bentsen, of Texas, and a liberal Democrat like Governor Cuomo, of New York. All these politicians succeed because they connect with the needs and interests of white middle-class voters. The problem facing any presidential candidate is that he has to connect with white middle-class voters in all the states simultaneously. He has to be a Thompson in Illinois, a Deukmejian in California, a Bentsen in Texas, and a Cuomo in New York.
Two broad themes seem to characterize the politics of the white middle class. One is pragmatism, the characteristically American notion that whatever works must be right. Middle-class voters accepted the enormous expansion of federal power under the New Deal because it was perceived to work. Big government brought relief to millions of Americans and helped bring the country out of the Great Depression--so long live big government! Most middle-class voters have accepted the Reagan program in the 1980s because it, too, has seemed to work. The popular view is that Reagan's anti-government policies helped bring the country out of the Great Inflation of the 1970s and produced more than five years of sustained economic recovery--so down with big government!
The second theme of middle-class politics is populism. Not populism of the left or populism of the right but a generalized resentment of elites and establishments. It was the anti-Washington issue that helped elect the past two Presidents of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Both political parties have become more ideological and less populist over the past twenty-five years. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern have finally won. Their movements took control of the parties away from the old bosses--the Democratic Party regulars, the Republican eastern establishment--and turned it over to "the people," which is to say, primary voters and caucus participants. But most people do not participate in primaries and caucuses. Those who do tend to be upper-middle-class activists with an ideological agenda. As a result, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have become virtually extinct. More to the point, middle-class voters no longer feel entirely comfortable in either party; the Democrats are too liberal and the Republicans too conservative. In every state I visited, politicians talked about how partisanship has been declining since the 1960s. There are fewer and fewer reliable Republican and Democratic voters. The white middle class has become a swing vote.
The big story of the past twenty-five years has been the Democratic Party's loss of the white middle-class vote. Everett Ladd, a political scientist, noticed it in the early 1970s, when he wrote about "the inversion of the New Deal class order" "In the party system which FDR built, the top had been decisively more Republican than the bottom," he wrote. By the early 1970s he found evidence that "in many...instances, groups at the top are now more Democratic than those at the bottom." Indeed, he identified a new pattern, "with the top more Democratic than the middle but the middle less Democratic than the bottom." The Democrats have been losing northern white ethnics and southern conservatives. They are becoming a top-down coalition of elite professionals and the dependent poor. In the 1988 presidential primaries the Democratic Party seemed to be reduced to two core constituencies-- blacks and white liberals. James A. Barnes, of National Journal, has reported a sharp decline in the participation of lower-income voters, particularly lower-income white voters, in this year's Democratic primaries. In Chicago, for instance, Jesse Jackson's 1988 vote was 23 percent higher than his 1984 vote. But the vote for the other active Democratic candidates this year was down 39 percent from the total of votes cast for Gary Hart and Walter Mondale in 1984. The decline was especially severe, Barnes reports, in the city's ethnic white working class sections. Without those voters the Democrats will not have a majority coalition in November.
If the Democrats are under pressure because they have been losing votes, the Republicans have had problems because they have been gaining votes. Old-line Republicans have had difficulty accepting some of the new groups that have been moving into their party--urban populists, racists, and religious fundamentalists. "The deal is, we will endorse your positions and take your votes, but please don't try to challenge us for control of our party," Republican leaders seem to be saying. Blacks didn't accept that deal from the Democratic Party, and religious fundamentalists are not likely to accept it from the Republican Party. The evidence from Illinois, New York, Texas, and California suggests that the Republican Party has had trouble establishing roots in the electorate. Big Republican gains in presidential voting have not translated into a party base for state and local elections, often because the party does not have a deep pool of talent to draw from in recruiting candidates. White middle-class voters may be leaving the Democratic Party and voting Republican, but most of them have not become Republican partisans.
In order to compete for the white middle-class vote, the parties must avoid seeming too ideological. In Illinois and New York the Democratic Party has to figure out some way to accommodate rising black political aspirations without becoming the black party. Similarly, Republicans have to absorb the white ethnic vote without becoming the racist party. Neither black power nor racism sells to the white middle class. In Texas the Republicans are under pressure to be more flexible in their view of government; otherwise they will violate the commonsense notion that government has a role to play in restoring the state's economy. In California, given the state's healthy economy, it is the Democrats who must adapt. They have to accept the Proposition 13 consensus and prove to suspicious middle-class voters that their taxing and spending policies are reasonable and appropriate. The Democratic Party's core ideological position is that the role of government is to protect people. The core Republican position is that government interferes with people. Ask white middle-class voters which position they agree with, and they are likely to say, "Both."
The Democrats got into trouble in the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of racial conflict and the Vietnam War. Racists could not remain in a party led by Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and foreign-policy conservatives could not accept the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. The most devastating blow to the Democrats came in the late 1970s, however, when Jimmy Carter failed to manage the most serious economic crisis since the Depression. The Democratic Party lost credibility on the one issue that had held it together for fifty years, even when race and Vietnam had threatened to tear it apart--namely, the commitment to protect people against economic adversity. The good news for Democrats this year is that the divisive issues are mostly in the past. Even with the Jackson campaign, social- and foreign-policy tensions are far less acute than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, the polls show renewed support for government activism.
So the Democrats have a real opportunity--if they don't run an ideological campaign that frightens the middle class. Most voters do not want to relive the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, and most will not vote for a party whose platform is "We told you so." In fact, the hot theme of the 1988 campaign so far has nothing to do with ideology. It is good management, which is one thing the voters are not getting from President Reagan. Bush and Dukakis are selling themselves as competent, experienced professionals. Bush is running on his resume. Dukakis is running on his record. There is not a vision between them. After eight years of Reagan, the voters seem to be saying, "We may have had enough vision for a while. Let's get a President who can make things work." After all, if you want to solve problems like the budget deficit and the trade imbalance, you don't need a visionary. You need a manager.
According to the polls, Dukakis has a good chance of beating Bush. Nevertheless, he got into trouble in the Democratic primaries. Democrats criticized him because he was dull and bland and didn't have enough of a message. But those very qualities may make him a strong Democratic candidate in November. He can be sold as a manager, not as a liberal. The rule is, the voters want one kind of candidate in a primary and another kind of candidate in a general election. Primary voters are looking for cheap thrills. General-election voters want security. Dukakis is not such a great date, you might say, but he'd make a fine husband.
What the voters seem to want in 1988 is change, but not too much change. They want the new President to deal with Reagan's mistakes. But they do not want to endanger the two things Reagan is credited with having achieved: lower inflation and a greater sense of military security. The Democrats cannot do anything that threatens to put those achievements at risk. To Jackson voters and liberal activists, Dukakis is a timid choice. Instead of posing a direct ideological challenge to everything Reagan stands for, Dukakis promises only to make government work better In Jesse Jackson's words, "Dukakis will manage the damage." That is called "me too" politics, and activists don't like it. On the Republican side, many conservatives are critical of Bush for the same reason--"He's bland, he's dull, he isn't saying anything." But conservatives, like liberals, get into trouble when they say too much.
What both parties have to offer is a safe alternative for voters who are unhappy with the status quo. Dwight Eisenhower was a safe alternative in 1952. Richard Nixon was believed to be safe in 1968, especially since everywhere Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace went that year, riots broke out. John F. Kennedy was not exactly a safe candidate in 1960: he was a forty-three-year-old Roman Catholic. Nor was Jimmy Carter a safe nominee in 1976: he was a born-again politician from the Deep South with no experience in national politics. But neither Kennedy nor Carter was an ideologue, and they ran cautious, moderate campaigns.
Both Dukakis and Bush are fairly safe candidates. In fact, they have similar strengths. Both are pragmatists. As a result, they are distrusted by ideological activists in their respective parties. But neither is regarded as dangerous or divisive. They also share a weakness. Neither Bush nor Dukakis has a populist bone in his body. Because Bush was born to wealth and privilege, he has a serious "silver spoon" problem. Voters can forgive that shortcoming in Democrats (FDR, JFK), but it is always a problem for Republicans. Dukakis is a suburban reformer, a man who believes in good government and high moral purpose. He is totally committed to process. He will use government to manage economic growth, and he will use Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government to manage the government. Not for him the passionate advocacy politics of Hubert Humphrey or Walter Mondale.
The voters face a choice this year between two establishment candidates, both "safe," both pragmatic. One proposes to be chairman of the board, the other sees himself as chief executive officer. What kind of contest is this going to be? What the voters want is a Big Ten game. Instead, the 1988 election is shaping up as Harvard versus Yale.