There are two theories about the 1988 presidential election. One is that the Democrats can't lose unless they do everything wrong. The other is that they can't win even if they do everything right.
According to the first theory, the Democrats hold all the trump cards--the Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, public disenchantment with Ronald Reagan, and George Bush's high negatives in the polls. All they have to do is play their cards right. The other theory says that the Democratic Party is in such a parlous condition that none of these advantages really matters. "The unpleasant truth is this," the political consultant Patrick H. Caddell wrote in a memorandum to major party contributors last year. "The party has never been weaker in our lifetime and the array of obstacles and trends never more alarming." Horace W. Busby, formerly a confidant of Lyndon B. Johnson's and now a Washington consultant, offered this prophecy one month before the 1980 election: "The hard-to-accept truth is that Democratic candidacies for the White House may no longer be viable. The Republican lock is about to close; it will be hard for anyone to open over the four elections between now and the year 2000." I interviewed Busby late last year and asked him if he saw any prospect that the Democrats could break the Republican lock in 1988. "No, I don't," he replied. Who did he think would be the strongest Democratic standard bearer in 1988? "Michael Dukakis," he said. "Why Dukakis?" I asked. "Because," Busby replied, "he is the Democrat most likely to carry his own state."
It's fairly easy to find evidence for the theory that the Democrats are headed for a victory. Just look at the polls--and not only the "horserace" polls, showing Dukakis with a healthy lead over Bush. Gallup polls taken earlier this year showed the Democrats regaining a lead, of 42 to 29 percent, over the Republicans in party affiliation. In 1985, shortly after President Reagan's re-election victory, the parties were nearly equal in strength. In October of 1987 a Time magazine poll asked people which party would handle various issues better. The Democrats were rated five points ahead on "keeping the country out of war." Two years earlier the Republicans had been five points ahead. On "keeping inflation under control" the Republican advantage had shrunk from 10 points in 1985 to an insignificant one point by 1987. The Republicans were still ahead on "keeping the country strong and prosperous," but the margin was six points in 1987, down from 18 points in 1985. And this was before the stock market crash.
The revolt against government is over. According to a CBS-New York Times poll taken in May, the American public is now evenly divided when asked whether it prefers a "bigger government providing more services" or a "smaller government providing fewer services." The Times reported, "Bigger government has not been this popular since November 1976, which is also the last time the Democrats won a presidential election." Moreover, tax resentment, a key source of public support for the Reagan revolution, has clearly diminished. From 1978 to 1986, according to polls taken by the Roper Organization, the percentage of Americans who felt that their federal income taxes were "excessively high" dropped from 41 to 26 percent.
Americans are in a mood for change. When people are asked in various ways whether they want the next President to continue Ronald Reagan's policies or change direction and follow different policies, a majority consistently opts for change.
If the evidence for Democratic optimism comes from the polls, the electoral college provides ample support for Democratic pessimism. "The electoral college, which Democrats prefer to ignore, is a Republican institution," Horace Busby wrote in 1980. "If a Democratic incumbency cannot hold it, it must be considered unlikely that a Democratic challenge can retake it." In Busby's view, the Republicans dominated the electoral college from the Civil War through the 1920s (the "Lincoln lock"); the Democrats held the advantage briefly, during the 1930s and 1940s (the "Roosevelt lock"); and the Republicans have dominated presidential politics since the 1950s (the "Eisenhower lock"). In the nine presidential elections from 1952 to 1984, thirty-nine states have gone Republican at least five times. Those states account for 441 electoral votes, or 171 more than the majority needed to win the presidency. "So long as the GOP holds that lock, Democrats are not competitive at the presidential level."
That does not mean the Democrats are not competitive at all. The Republican presidential lock coexists with a Democratic lock on the House of Representatives, which has had a Democratic majority for all but four years since 1930, and on state and local offices, where Democrats continue to predominate. Busby observed that "nearly anything you look at in American politics turns out to be sixty-forty." The Democratic percentages in Congress hover around 60 percent, while the Democrats can count on winning only about 40 percent of the presidential vote (43 percent in 1968, 38 percent in 1972, 41 percent in 1980 and 1984). "If you have a credible opposition, it's likely to get about forty percent of the vote," Busby explained. Americans, it seems, are governed by one-party rule--but by different parties at different levels.
In his memorandum, which was widely circulated, Caddell described the electoral college as "nothing less than an electoral Matterhorn" for Democrats. Caddell examined statistics from the past five presidential elections and came up with a startling conclusion: the national Democratic Party has no base. Only the District of Columbia, with three electoral votes, has voted for the Democratic ticket every time. Twenty-three states with a total of 202 electoral votes have voted Republican every time. One of those states, California, is the biggest prize of all, with forty-seven electoral votes. Add to this Republican base those states that have supported the party four out of the past five times, and the Republicans end up with thirty-six states and 354 electoral votes. That is well over the 270 votes needed for an electoral-college majority. Only one state, Minnesota, has voted Democratic four out of the past five times. A Minnesotan was on the Democratic ticket each of those times.
What can the Democrats do? Caddell's rule of thumb is that in order to be electorally viable, the Democratic ticket has to be able to "compete to win" California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, and North Carolina. In the past five presidential elections the Democrats have won exactly three victories (North Carolina in 1976, Texas in 1968 and 1976) out of the twenty-five contests in these states.
The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance in the electoral college decisively. In 1932 the Northeast and the Midwest accounted for 54 percent of the nation's electoral votes. By 1960 the Sun Belt states of the South and West had pulled even in population with the Northeast and the Midwest. Now the balance has reversed: this year the South and West hold 54 percent of the electoral votes.
Moreover, as the Sun Belt has gotten more populous, it has become more Republican. In the two Eisenhower elections, 1952 and 1956, about twice as many votes were cast in the Northeast and Midwest as in the South and West. In those days the South and West voted more Democratic than the Northeast and Midwest. By the time of the two Reagan elections, 1980 and 1984, the Sun Belt and the Snow Belt were casting about the same number of votes, but the party advantages had reversed. Republicans were now doing better in the Sun Belt than in the Snow Belt.
Population shifts within states have been as important as population shifts among states. In the northern industrial states population has shifted decisively from the cities to the suburbs--which is to say, from core Democratic to core Republican areas. Back in 1940 the urban population in these states outweighed the suburban population by more than two to one. By the 1970 census the suburbs were larger than the cities they surrounded. And as the suburbs got larger, they became more Republican. From 1960 to 1984 the Democratic share of the big-city vote remained roughly constant, at about two thirds. But the Democratic share of the suburban vote fell steadily, from just under half in 1960 to about one third in 1984. In other words, the Republican Party's base has been shifting with the population, to the fastest-growing states and the fastest-growing areas within each state.
Ideologically the Democrats have become more and more isolated on the left. Two broad streams of voters have been leaving the party since the 1950s--white southerners and white "ethnics" outside the South. Walter Mondale carried only 28 percent of the white southern vote in 1984. Mondale's Catholic vote, at 44 percent, was the worst showing by any Democratic presidential candidate since 1924. Beginning in the 1960s the Democrats made it clear that the party did not welcome the support of racists, hawks, and religious conservatives--voters who had felt at home in the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These losses would not have been devastating if the Democrats had managed to hold on to the economic issue. But Carter's failure and Reagan's perceived success in managing the economy had the effect of seriously damaging the party's economic credibility. Thus social and foreign-policy liberalism has driven the conservatives out, and the economic issue no longer brings them back in--at least it doesn't in the absence of a major recession.
In order to win the presidency this year, the Democrats have to gain nine percentage points over the party's 1984 showing. An increase of that magnitude for a party out of power is relatively rare in American politics. It has happened four times in this century. The largest gain came in 1932, when the Democrats' share of the popular vote went up 17 points and Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept into office. The big issue was the Great Depression. The next largest gain was in 1920, when the Republican vote went up 14 percent. The big issue was the return to normalcy after the Great War. The Democrats picked up 13 points in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected. The big issues were Watergate and the economy. The Republican vote went up 10 points when Eisenhower led the ticket in 1952. The big issue was the Korean War, with a dose of communism and corruption thrown in. If George Wallace had not been on the ballot, the Republican vote probably would have gone up by at least 10 points in 1968 as well (the Democratic vote fell by 18 points). The big issue in 1968 was Vietnam, along with racial violence and student protest.
There's a message here. If the Democrats want to score a gain of nine percent or more in 1988, they need a big issue. The Iran-contra scandal? It certainly looked like one when the scandal broke, at the end of 1986. Now it is not so clear. Congress and the press went into their Watergate mode and spent the better part of last year looking for the "smoking gun" that would tie President Reagan to the contra fund diversion. Not only did the smoking gun never turn up but the whole investigation diverted public attention from the one issue that really hurt the President--the fact that he sold arms to Iran. With Bush at the top of the Republican ticket, the issue may hurt. But not nearly so much as Watergate or Vietnam or Korea or the Great Depression did.
The stock-market crash is another candidate for the big issue of 1988. Here, too, the damage seems to be insufficient for the Democrats' purposes. The public did not show any sense of a crisis. According to the polls, most Americans felt unaffected by the October 19 crash. A survey taken by the Confidence Board, a business-research organization, found that consumer confidence dropped by only five percent after the stock market plunge. In contrast, consumer confidence dropped 33 percent after the 1973 surge in oil prices. The principal effect of Black Monday was to create more pessimism about the economy. But the economic issue is still a brush fire in the hills to most Americans. They know there is danger out there, and the stock-market crash suggested that it is getting closer. But it is not here yet.
The stock-market crash was not a crisis. It was a warning. And by forcing both candidates to talk about the deficit, it does not play to the Democratic Party's strength. The instability of the world's financial markets does lend further support to the view that the United States must change its economic policies. And the desire for change always helps the party out of power. But to gain nine percentage points in 1988 the Democrats will need more than a national case of the jitters.
According to Horace Busby, "When electoral-college locks have been broken, as in 1932 and 1952, the winning party has benefited from a large infusion of new voters. FDR's 1932 popular vote was 51 percent larger than Al Smith's in 1928; Eisenhower's 1952 popular vote exceeded Dewey's 1948 level by 54 percent." Caddell made a similar point. "Both Eisenhower and Carter won by bringing over millions of 'new' voters--weak Democrats, Independents and war veterans for Eisenhower, and white Southern Protestants for Carter." What new voters are available in 1988? The Baby Boomers are one possibility. In Busby's view, both the Republican lock on the electoral college and the Democratic lock on lower offices "were set and maintained by those voters born before the 1940s." Younger voters could break those locks. In fact, Busby expects that to happen--but not in 1988. There is no issue like the Vietnam War around which Baby Boomers can rally this year.
The generation that is flexing its political muscle most conspicuously in 1988 is not the Baby Boom but the Senior Boom. Elderly voters have a real generational issue--the protection of federal entitlement programs that are under threat because of the deficit. Seniors are mobilizing to meet that threat. They might break the Republican lock if the Republicans are foolish enough to propose serious entitlement cuts.
Every election offers voters two kinds of choices: an ideological choice ("Which candidate is closer to my beliefs and values?") and a referendum on the incumbent ("Am I satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going?"). The Democrats cannot win an ideological election anymore. That is the message conveyed by the electoral-college data. In moving south and west and out to the suburbs, too many voters have shifted from the pro-government to the anti-government side. They identify as taxpayers, not as beneficiaries of public spending, and they are more likely to see government as interfering with them than as protecting them. They can get what they need from government by keeping the Democrats in charge at the legislative level. The Republicans seem to have the edge on executive qualities--leading and directing--while the Democrats are better suited to the legislative tasks of protecting and providing.
The Democrats can, however, win a referendum. That is the message conveyed by the polls. American voters want change, as long as it is not too much change. They want to preserve the two leading accomplishments of the Reagan presidency--lower inflation and a greater sense of military security. But they want the new Administration to correct Reagan's mistakes--the deficit, the Iran-contra approach to foreign policy, the sleaze factor--and to pay more attention to social and economic justice. What the Democrats have to do in 1988 is turn themselves into a usable opposition. If they present themselves as a liberal party, the electoral college will do to them exactly what it did in 1968, 1972, and 1984. But they can't become a conservative party either. Liberals are right when they say that faced with a choice between two Republican parties, the voters will choose the real thing every time. The answer is for the Democrats to define themselves as the party of change. Instead of posing an ideological choice, in which people are asked to vote their beliefs and values, the Democrats must do exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1980- forget ideology and turn the election into a referendum, a choice between continuity and change. Once the Democrats win, they will have ample opportunity to convince the voters that their principles are correct. All they have to do is show that they work.
That, at least, is the hypothesis. In order to see whether it made sense, I spent two months recently traveling to key battleground states--Illinois, New York, Texas, and California. Together they will cast 136 electoral votes, or more than half of the 270 needed for an electoral-college majority. The four states include seven of the nation's ten largest cities. They exemplify the political cultures of their respective regions--the Midwest (Illinois), the East (New York), the South (Texas), and the West (California). If American politics turns on a Sun Belt-Snow Belt axis, then New York and Illinois will be allied against Texas and California. Then again, the economic trends of the 1980s seem to have split the booming coast states, like New York and California, from the troubled heartland areas, like Illinois and Texas. Together the four states capture all variations of the national condition in 1988.
Moreover, the four states I visited all have strong and intensely local political cultures. Chicago and New York City are famous for swallowing up national candidates and treating national issues as secondary to local concerns. It happened to Gary Hart in the 1984 Illinois primary, and it happened to Albert Gore, Jr., this year in New York. As for Texas and California, they are famous for seeing themselves as virtually different countries (in fact, Texas and California were different countries for brief periods in the nineteenth century). There is a reason why local factors may be unusually important in the 1988 presidential election: the election is expected to be a close one.
During 1984, according to Public Opinion magazine, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale were matched against each other in 101 "trial heats" published by various polling organizations. A hundred of these polls showed Reagan ahead; Mondale was ahead just once, by two points, in a Newsweek poll taken on the day after the Democratic National Convention. In March and April of this year seven polling organizations published trial heats between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Dukakis led in two polls, Bush led in two, and the other three were too close to call. In May the CBS-New York Times poll showed Dukakis beating Bush by 10 points, while the Gallup poll, which showed Bush ahead in April, gave Dukakis a 16-point lead. "It will come down to gut feelings a few days before the election of whether we stick with good old George or make a change to a guy who seems competent and may do a little good," Edward J. Rollins, Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, told The Washington Post in April. In landslide elections, like those of 1964, 1972, and 1984, local factors are virtually irrelevant. The winning ticket does well everywhere. In close elections, like those of 1960 and 1976, everything matters--a candidate's appearance in a debate, a foreign-policy gaffe like Gerald Ford's liberation of Poland, what kind of local support each campaign has going for it in the key battleground states. With this in mind, I interviewed officeholders, party officials, consultants and commentators to see how they assessed the outlook for November 8, 1988, in their state.
New York and Texas are supposed to be "core" Democratic states. Since 1952 their voting profiles in presidential races have been exactly the same. Both states voted Republican in 1952 and 1956; Democratic in 1960, 1964, and 1968; Republican in 1972; Democratic in 1976; and Republican in 1980 and 1984. Illinois and California have been less kind to the Democrats. Except for the 1964 Johnson landslide, both states have sustained almost perfect Republican loyalty since 1952. The one exception was the 1960 election in Illinois, when John F. Kennedy carried the state by fewer than 9,000 votes out of 4.75 million cast. That outcome, more than a few people suspect, had more to do with the way the votes were counted than the way the votes were cast.
Over the past twenty-five years American politics has become more and more ideological. The moderate eastern establishment that used to run the Republican Party has been overthrown by a vigorous and populist conservative movement. The regulars who used to run the Democratic Party--politicians like the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley--were forced to accommodate to the highly principled, reform-minded liberalism that emerged with the New Politics movement in 1968 and 1972. In national politics, conflicts of interests (business versus labor) have largely given way to conflicts of values (liberal versus conservative).
The politics of values is probably more alien to Illinois than to any other state. Illinois politics has never been primarily about ideas and values. It is about interests--jobs, money, and power. Illinois politicos are not comfortable with the drift of American politics away from meat-and potatoes issues and toward airier concerns, which they associate with East Coast and West Coast activists.
Tom Roeser, a Republican activist and the president of the City Club of Chicago, offered Representative Dan Rostenkowski as "a pretty good model" of the kind of regular Democrat who does well in Illinois. "He's a blue-collar guy. He's strong for labor. He's not running around to 'I am guilty' meetings of the black community. He talks about hiking taxes, but he also talks about fiscal responsibility. He certainly doesn't have an exotic foreign policy. He understands business. He could be a model for a lot of people who want to get the Illinois vote."
I spoke to James M. Wall, a former liberal activist and an ordained Methodist minister who now edits The Christian Century. Wall chaired the McGovern delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, in Miami. He served as Illinois chairman of the Carter campaign in 1976 and 1980 and managed Paul Simon's 1984 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate. According to Wall, Carter lost Illinois twice because "he was still seen as a liberal Democrat." The problem with being a liberal Democrat, Wall explained, is that it entails a moralistic approach to politics that does not go down very well in Illinois.
Wall told me, "I interviewed George McGovern after the 1972 election, and he said to me, 'We made a terrible mistake casting this campaign in moral terms. The fact that we called the Vietnam War immoral said to anybody who supports the war or fights in the war that they were immoral.' Ever since then we've been in trouble."
Wall said that his views changed on the floor of the 1972 convention. "I had to confront a badly wounded bunch of Chicago regulars," he told me. "I realized that McGovern now had to win the election and would need the help of Richard J. Daley. I was confronted by a young woman who came on the floor of the convention in bare feet, wearing a granny dress and demanding to sit in the chair that belonged to the chairman of the delegation, a gray-haired, dignified old gentleman named John Tuohey.
"He came to me one morning and said, 'Would you look over there in my chair? She's sitting in it.' I went over to her and I said, 'That's his chair.' She answered, in the egalitarian style of the sixties, 'If I was elected, I can sit in any chair I want to sit in.' That's what changed me," Wall explained. "The arrogance of the sixties told me that we're not going to rule a pluralistic country with that kind of elitist attitude." "Have the Democrats changed since 1972?" I asked. "The damn party did it again with Mondale in '84," Wall replied, "making him take a woman for Vice President. Bad mistake. Making him do it. He had to do it. He looked like a wimp to do it. He did it."
Two of the most popular vote-getters in Illinois exemplify the moderate, pragmatic style of Illinois politics: the fourth-term Republican governor Jim Thompson, currently the nation's longest-serving chief executive, and the second-term Democratic senator Alan Dixon.
Almost everyone I spoke to described Jim Thompson as a lucky politician. "He's remarkably successful and remarkably lucky," Tom Rouser said. In 1982 Thompson barely defeated Adlai Stevenson III, by about 5,000 votes out of 3.6 million cast. In 1986 he defeated Stevenson again, this time by a somewhat more comfortable margin, though the strength of his victory was widely attributed to Stevenson's problems in the Democratic primary (Democratic voters nominated Lyndon LaRouche followers for lieutenant governor and attorney general, forcing Stevenson to resign from the Democratic ticket and run on a third-party line).
"Thompson has not been a fluke," said Vincent Demuzio, the chairman of the state Democratic Party. "He has been a hard worker. He's done very well with patronage." According to Rouser, Thompson "makes his deals with the Democrats in the Senate, and he gives them patronage." Roeser added, "The governor has been very much like a Nelson Rockefeller. He worships bigness and big government. He's not burdened with convictions particularly, so that consequently he can turn on a dime." It is precisely those attributes that make Thompson effective in the world of Illinois politics.
Senator Alan Dixon also succeeds in Illinois by steering clear of ideology. "Dixon understands how to address this split-party state," said Basil Talbott, Jr., a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Sun Times. "He's neither a conservative nor a liberal." Talbott, like several others I spoke to, contrasted Dixon with Paul Simon, his colleague in the U.S. Senate, who mounted an unsuccessful presidential campaign earlier this year. When Dixon and Simon were in the state senate together, both representing downstate districts, "they were both fairly progressive," Talbott said. "They would have called themselves liberals without objection. Over the years, however, Simon has maintained his ideology, and Dixon has changed as the state has changed. He now describes himself as moderate to conservative."
In discussing the national Democratic Party, Ed Murnane, a former Reagan activist and now the deputy director of the Bush campaign in Illinois, observed that "Alan Dixon is not really a factor in what the Democratic Party is." But he is a lot stronger in Illinois than Paul Simon. "Al is called Al the Pal," Murnane said. "Everybody likes Al Dixon. He's going to be re elected. Dixon was up two years ago and nobody wanted to run against him. They are lining up to run against Paul Simon right now." Illinois Democrats could not have been impressed with Simon's performance as a presidential candidate this year. He carried no states but Illinois. Moreover, by suspending his presidential campaign and holding on to his delegates, Simon offended Jesse Jackson and created resentment among Chicago blacks.
Illinois's grand master of skillful, shrewd, pragmatic politics was, of course, Mayor Richard Daley. What Chicagoans have discovered in the twelve years since Daley's death is that his power was essentially personal. He did not leave much of an institutional legacy. "There was not a Democratic Party machine," one of the late Mayor Harold Washington's top aides told The Washington Post last year. "It was a Daley machine. It was almost a cult of personality. Once you removed the personality, it was all over."
"The Democratic machine had fallen apart by the time Harold Washington came along," Basil Talbott observed. He cited a number of factors that contributed to its demise. During the 1970s the courts ruled that the city could no longer fire people for political reasons. Urban crime increased. "A precinct captain doesn't want to go down the street and knock on the door anymore," Talbott said. Television also made a difference. Candidates could now communicate with voters directly instead of through a political organization.
The key factor in the death of the machine was the rise of racial politics. Machines work best in an issueless environment. Machine politicians are concerned with material resources, such as jobs, contracts, and benefits. Once divisions over issues emerge, groups begin to see one another as opponents rather than competitors. Their goals become mutually exclusive.
The black-power movement introduced the politics of polarization into American cities during the 1960s. That made it difficult for political machines to survive. Blacks could no longer be bought off. They challenged the machines that had excluded them from power, and whites responded fearfully and aggressively. In a polarized environment candidates typically win overwhelming majorities from one race and almost no votes from the other. The days of across-the-board machine majorities are over. Racial politics destroyed the Chicago machine, and it endangers the presidential candidacies of both George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Neither is a particularly ideological politician, and so both ought to do well in Illinois. But racial politics creates pitfalls for each of them.
When Harold Washington was first elected mayor, in 1983, Chicago experienced something new. Tom Roeser, who describes himself as a movement conservative, called it "movement politics." Movement politics is the politics of a cause. "There is a strong, militant, black-activist movement in Chicago," said Bruce DuMont, a leading Chicago political commentator. "Harold Washington was picked up and swept into office by that movement."
Washington's mobilization of black voters sparked a countermobilization of white ethnics, the people who had been the backbone of the Daley machine. The symbol of their resentment was "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, the leader of the anti-Washington movement in the so-called council wars of 1983-1986. Once the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, Vrdolyak left the party to run (unsuccessfully) against Washington for mayor in 1987. He has now joined the Republican Party, which nominated him for clerk of the Cook County circuit court this year, an important patronage position.
Vrdolyak symbolizes the white-ethnic problem that Democrats have been having in cities all over the country for the past twenty years. The rise of the black-power movement and the outbreak of urban violence in the late 1960s stimulated a law-and-order backlash among urban working-class whites. While conservatives and racist whites were leaving the Democratic Party in the South, "urban populists" were drifting toward the Republican Party in the North: George Wallace, meet Archie Bunker.
"There was no future for Ed Vrdolyak in the Democratic Party," David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant from Chicago, told me. "The question is whether he can persuade ethnic whites that his case is exemplary, that there's no place for them in the Democratic Party either." Roeser described "a hemorrhage of white voters in the Democratic Party," adding that "Harold Washington and his followers really didn't cry at all when whites left the party. They saw it as strengthening their own hand."
The trend seems to be for white ethnics to vote Republican, particularly in national and statewide elections. But they rarely become Republicans, because the action in local races is still on the Democratic ballot. "It is still incredibly difficult for a Republican to get elected to anything in Cook County," Axelrod said. He noted that Vrdolyak did not bring any major white-ethnic committeemen with him into the Republican Party, even though Washington had cut off their patronage. They had their revenge, however, after Washington's death, last November. Twenty-four white aldermen joined with five blacks to make Eugene Sawyer Chicago's acting mayor. Sawyer, a black, was a staunch ally of the Daley machine who sometimes consorted with Mayor Washington's enemies during the council wars. Sawyer is the kind of black politician white ethnics feel they can "deal with."
Like Washington, Vrdolyak thrives on racial polarization. Republicans are actually of two minds about that. Ed Murnane is a good example of white ethnic realignment. "I grew up in a Democratic family," he told me. "My father is a Democrat. I'm an Irish Catholic. The first campaign I was ever involved in was in 1960, when I delivered literature for Jack Kennedy. My family is an Irish, union, blue-collar family with a couple of priests and nuns, a typical Irish Catholic family. Everyone in my family, with the exception of my father, was an avid Ronald Reagan supporter in 1980 and again in 1984."
I asked Murnane whether he considered Vrdolyak a racist. "Well, he left the Democratic Party because he didn't get along with Harold Washington--so maybe," Murnane replied. Then he said, "Even if he is a racist, I'm not sure it's a negative issue in the Republican Party, because there are a lot of other people who feel the same way. A lot of people who moved from Chicago out to the suburbs did it for that reason. They see the city changing and they say, 'Let's move out.' So even if Vrdolyak said, 'I am becoming a Republican because there are too many blacks in the Democratic Party,' is that being a racist? Absolutely. Is that going to hurt him in the Republican Party? Maybe. Maybe not."
In the end, the race issue works both ways for Republicans. According to Bruce DuMont, Republican leaders were a little nervous about putting a candidate like Vrdolyak on the party ticket. "Vrdolyak's being on the ticket will increase black turnout in the general election. That will increase the likelihood of Democrats' carrying the state. The Bush people were not happy with Vrdolyak, because in their view, it will only ignite the black vote, and that will go against him."
Northern white ethnics and white southerners are the swing voters of American politics. "Take a look at the swing votes in the South that went for Reagan in 1980 and stayed there in 1984," DuMont said. "They're very much like the ethnic votes on the northwest and southwest sides of Chicago." In fact, the South and urban areas like Chicago have developed similar two-tiered political systems. People continue to vote Democratic in local elections, where ideological conflicts are muted. But they leave the Democratic Party in large numbers when they vote for higher offices, where ideology is more salient. DuMont predicted that "just as the southern swing voters of 1980 and '84 aren't ready to move back to the Democrats for President, you'll find the same pattern in Chicago."
I asked DuMont if he thought the Republican Party was going to look more and more like Ed Vrdolyak, and the Democratic Party more and more like Harold Washington. "Yes," he replied. "It is already true in the city. I think it will now move to Cook County." In other words, the Chicago model of racial politics is not being contained. It is spreading. It has already spread to presidential politics. Racial antagonism was very close to the surface in this year's Illinois Democratic presidential primary. According to a CBS News-New York Times exit poll, Illinois Democrats who voted for Paul Simon and those who voted for Michael Dukakis had a two-to-one negative opinion of Jesse Jackson. Jackson voters were slightly positive toward Simon and slightly negative toward Dukakis. As in most of this year's Democratic primaries, the Illinois vote was deeply polarized along racial lines. Jackson carried more than 90 percent of the black vote but only seven percent of the white vote in his home state. In fact, a pattern became evident in the Democratic primaries this year: the higher the percentage of blacks in a state, the worse Jackson did among white voters. Thus Jackson did better among white voters in Wisconsin than in Illinois; he did better among whites in Connecticut than in New York. As an urban white ethnic, Michael Dukakis ought to have more appeal for white ethnic voters in Illinois than George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, or Walter Mondale did. But those voters will be watching very carefully to see how his relationship with Jesse Jackson develops, especially at the Democratic National convention.
I asked the New York political consultant David Garth whether as a result of the 1986 tax-reform bill and the 1987 Wall Street crash, the Reagan Administration could be portrayed as anti-New York. The question provoked him.
"We in New York, we're the fucking country. You understand? We are not one of these small states. We're the power boys. We can't be hurt by some schmuck actor from California. We were not threatened by Jimmy Carter. We're New York. Hey, New York's got big balls. Koch has a big pair and so does Mario. I started to smile when you talked about Ronald Reagan hurting New York. That old fart's not going to hurt New York. He can't do a thing to us. Any way he turns, he needs us."
Welcome to New York.
No one would deny that New York is still the money center of the United States. But it is hard to argue that New York is what it once was, the imperial center of American culture and politics. Not after the narrowly averted fiscal collapse of New York City in the mid-1970s. Most revealing, perhaps, is what has happened to the Republican Party of New York. As the political consultant David Sawyer observed, "The Republican Party in this state was for generations the leader of the moderate establishment wing of the national Republican Party. That position has eroded completely."
Nelson Rockefeller, who dominated New York politics for thirty years, is gone. So is Jacob Javits, the U.S. senator whom Rockefeller nurtured and protected. And almost gone is the kind of moderate Republican politics they represented. New York Republicans have moved away from the George Bush style and toward the Ronald Reagan style. But then, so has George Bush.
There was no great mystery to how Nelson Rockefeller dominated the Republican Party. He did it with money. "One time we analyzed what each Republican county chairman in New York got from Rockefeller," John Burns, the chairman of the New York state Democratic Party from 1965 to 1971, told me. "They all got something--not necessarily out of the public payroll. Many were on the public payroll, but a lot of them were in other things that the Rockefeller family had control of. He owned the Republican Party." Rockefeller's power base was personal, not institutional or ideological. Did he leave a political legacy? Timothy Russert, a former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo, said, "Rockefeller probably extended the run of moderate Republicanism in New York and other places, and for that he deserves credit. Could he have stopped the tidal wave of conservatism? There's no way."
There are two Republican parties in New York now. One is the legislative party that controls the state senate in Albany, which has its base in the rural areas of upstate New York. "That's where most of the control and the patronage and jobs and prestige come from," Joseph Crangle, the Erie County (Buffalo) Democratic chairman, told me. The state senate is the last refuge of Rockefeller Republicanism. Its leader, Warren Anderson, "is really a Rockefeller Republican," said Ken Auletta, an author and a columnist for the Daily News. "Those Republicans up there are really very moderate. Who passes tax increases? Who passes school aid every year? They're really not a Reagan party."
The other is the Republican Party in the New York suburbs, which is far more ethnic and conservative and activist. That is the Reagan party. Richard Rosenbaum, the state party chairman from 1973 to 1977 and one of Rockefeller's chief lieutenants, acknowledged that since the days of Nelson Rockefeller "there has been an erosion of the center of the party and a movement to the right," although, he added, the right-wing social issues like abortion and school prayer which "are near and dear to the hearts of true conservatives are not really part of the dogma of the Republican Party of this state." Kemp Hannon, a young Republican legislator from Nassau County, who is the minority leader pro tem in the state assembly, described what happened: "When the Republicans got wiped out at a number of levels, the people who came in had nothing to lose. They were like myself--younger, brighter, more educated, more concerned about the issues." What was the agenda of this new Republican Party? "It was the Reagan agenda," Hannon said, although he was careful to point out that in his view it was Reagan's economic and foreign-policy agenda, not his social agenda, that revitalized the party in New York.
Auletta observed that politicians who were regarded as right-wingers twenty years ago--John Marchi, who beat John Lindsay in the Republican primary for mayor of New York in 1969, and Alfonse D'Amato, who beat Javits in 1980--are seen as moderate Republicans today. D'Amato's election seemed to signal a sharp shift of the Republican Party to the right. But D'Amato moved quickly to the center and became a pragmatist. "He delivers," David Garth said, "much better than Federal Express." In Garth's view, the Republicans of New York have not exactly been Reaganized. "They've mostly been D'Amatoed." In other words, new forces in the Republican coalition have pulled the party to the right. But the inexorable logic of New York politics pulls those Republicans who get elected back to the center.
The new forces are mostly white-ethnic voters. Russert remarked that "all the ethnics who fled [Buffalo] and went to the suburbs became Republican." That is less true of the ethnics who fled New York City, a great many of whom were Jews who retained their Democratic loyalty. Among white Catholics, however, the trend is clear. "We've got to watch ourselves," said John Marino, the executive director of the New York state Democratic Party "We've lost the Irish and Italian ethnic votes." Italian voters in particular have become a new and important Republican constituency. They tend to dominate the party in the New York suburbs.
In several interviews I advanced the hypothesis that Italian voters are now a core Republican constituency, just as Jewish voters are a core Democratic group. Auletta agreed with me, but Russert, who is a close observer of the polls in New York, cautioned that Italian voters are still split fifty-fifty in party registration, whereas Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic. Nonetheless, he agreed that it is "becoming more and more true that Italian ethnics are likely to vote Republican."
Mario Cuomo clearly cuts into the Republicans' Italian vote. But it took some time even for him to establish his base. In his first race for governor, in 1982, Cuomo lost the white Catholic vote to the Republican Lewis Lehrman, who was Jewish at that time (he has since converted to Roman Catholicism). Cuomo carried Italian voters only narrowly that year. As Auletta recalled, Lehrman sent out millions of pieces of direct mail on the subjects of the death penalty and abortion during the last few days of the 1982 campaign. "He was playing right to the Catholics," Auletta said. "I spent the day with Cuomo. He was scared, literally scared, that the Lehrman thing would shift the tide and he could lose the race. Clearly, it was moving. The polls the previous week indicated a huge gap. No one expected Lehrman to do as well as he did. The only thing that would account for it was those mailings."
The 1969 Republican primary, in which Marchi defeated Lindsay for mayor, turned out to be prophetic. Conservative Italian voters have largely displaced old-line WASP liberals in the Republican Party. (When Lindsay eventually ran for President, in 1972, it was as a Democrat.) I asked Richard Rosenbaum whom else he would associate with the liberal wing of the Republican Party. "Have you ever heard of the dodo bird?" he replied.
Kemp Hannon insisted that the Republicans' success with ethnic voters has more to do with economic than with social issues. In fact, his advice to Republicans was "Avoid social issues." He explained, "We do not have a backlash effect in the Republican Party. I have not seen that." I presented this argument to one longtime observer of the New York political scene. I pointed out that most of the Republicans I had spoken to insisted that Republican gains in New York were due more to economics than to race. "The people you spoke to have to say those things," he replied. The reality, he said, was more complicated. In his opinion, Republicans are beneficiaries of racial tensions within the Democratic Party. "Politically, that's what the Republicans are living off, those tensions within the Democratic Party. " He called the Republican Party in New York a "purely reactive" party. "I don't believe there has been a Republican who could carry New York with a positive appeal since Eisenhower," he said. "Republicans in New York are only 'not Democrats.'" That is why Republicans can pretend that race is irrelevant. In his view, "For Republicans to run a campaign that was anti-black would be a terrible error. The point is, they don't have to."
In Presidential elections New York is still more Democratic than most states (Democrats have averaged 46 percent of the New York vote in the past five presidential elections, compared with 44 percent for Illinois and 42 percent for the nation as a whole). But it has trouble accepting liberal Democrats like George McGovern and Walter Mondale.
As Tim Russert observed, "New York is disposed to vote for a moderate or even a moderately liberal Democrat, but not a liberal Democrat. If candidates are viewed as isolationist in foreign policy, soft on crime, big spenders on domestic programs, and activist liberals on social issues, they're dead. They may lose New York by only ten points, as opposed to thirty points in Utah, but they lose." Foreign policy, he noted, is probably a more important issue in New York than it is in other states, because of the internationalist outlook of New York's ethnic constituencies. And that is where liberal Democrats have been most vulnerable. In fact, this spring the polls showed Dukakis leading Bush by six to eight points. "Dukakis has a very good chance of carrying New York against Bush," Russert said, "as long as he doesn't get trapped into a neo-isolationist foreign policy."
Joe Crangle, the Erie County Democratic chairman, complained about the tendency of outsiders to "Manhattanize" the New York Democratic Party. In Manhattan ideology is everything. "If you go down to Manhattan," Crangle told me in his Buffalo office, "people tell you immediately that they're a liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat. If you went around here and asked people what kind of Democrat they are, they'd say, 'What do you mean? I'm a Democrat.' In upstate New York we're unhyphenated Democrats." He noted that George McGovern carried Buffalo in 1972 because he was simply "the Democrat."
Upstate New York in many ways resembles downstate Illinois. They are economically distressed regions (Crangle remarked that Buffalo has never climbed out of the 1958 recession). They are insulated from the racial and ideological conflicts of New York City and Chicago. And the Democrats continue to do pretty well in both places, particularly in comparison with the suburbs. The problem is that these areas are declining in population and remain largely outside the mainstream of Democratic Party debate. Crangle told me with some pride that in general elections upstate New York now casts slightly more votes on the Democratic line than New York City does. But he acknowledged that 70 percent of the state's Democratic primary vote still comes from the New York City area. The reason is turnout. New York City still has basically a one-party system, and so Democratic primaries are where the action is. New York City still chooses the candidates. Upstate "unhyphenated" Democrats have no choice but to vote for them.
In New York, unlike Illinois, race is an issue that people seemed uncomfortable dealing with--at least on the record. Off the record, however, they discussed the race issue as if it were a dirty secret. A disillusioned liberal I met with brought up "a central fact about American politics that is like having an elephant in the room." I asked him what he meant. "The central fact of American politics is race," he said. "The Democrats have black people, and the Republicans don't."
He explained that Democrats began to lose people's trust "in the late sixties and seventies, when we were pretending that the riots weren't really going on, that people weren't really getting hit over the head. You look at the slide in the Democratic vote. It is directly correlated with the crime indices." I asked him about the anti-government revolt of the 1970s, which brought Ronald Reagan to power. "What is it that people don't like about government?" he asked rhetorically. "Who is it that people don't want to pay taxes for?"
In his view, the Republicans don't even have to talk about "the social issue." "All they have to do is say to the Democrats, 'Jesse Jackson is with you.'" I asked him whether the Democrats could say back to the Republicans, "Well, Pat Robertson is with you." "How many evangelicals are committing robberies in Flatbush every day?" he retorted.
Edward Koch has been elected and re-elected mayor of New York by appealing to racial resentment. Mario Cuomo also has gotten elected and re-elected, and so has Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although neither has made an explicit appeal to racial resentment. All three of these white-ethnic Democrats--a Jew, an Italian Catholic, and an Irish Catholic--have defied the trends. They have managed to hold on to the support of white middle-class voters who have otherwise been drifting away from the Democratic Party. Have they all done it the same way, or in different ways?
New York is a tough town, and one of the things New Yorkers like about Mario Cuomo is his toughness. "Cuomo scares the shit out of people," Ken Auletta said. I asked a New York political consultant if he had ever worked for or against Mario Cuomo in a political campaign. "God, I wouldn't be living here if I worked against him," he replied.
Cuomo does not present the conventional image of a liberal. In fact, Joe Crangle remarked to me that one reason the 1982 governor's race between Cuomo and Lehrman was so close was that the voters really didn't know much about Cuomo. "There was a real question about whether he was some sort of superliberal from New York. Governor Cuomo will never have that kind of a close race again." Equally rare among liberals these days is Cuomo's moral traditionalism. He projects a sense of values shared with middle-class voters. Ken Auletta told me about the time he invited Cuomo to attend the course he was giving on the Cuomo governorship. "I asked him, 'What would you do, Governor, if money were no object and you had to solve the problem of teenage pregnancy in this state? You've experimented with support services and other programs, but they haven't had an appreciable effect. What do you do about this problem?' Cuomo's instinctive response was 'Tell them not to have sex.'" Auletta added, "That's Cuomo the Queens blue-collar Italian immigrant talking."
On some issues, of course, the governor's views are a little "advanced"- notably abortion and the death penalty. He defuses his vulnerability on these issues, however, by analyzing them publicly as moral and intellectual problems and as matters of conscience.
Cuomo's 1984 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention was a ringing affirmation of Democratic values. As Laurence Kirwan, the state's Democratic Party chairman, put it, "When people ask what the Democratic Party stands for, you can turn right to Mario's speech." But his approach to governing has not been that of a liberal ideologue. Auletta, one of the leading experts on the Cuomo record, calls him an "incrementalist" and a "tinkerer." "He's not a guy who throws long touchdown bombs." Auletta argues that while state spending has grown at an alarming rate under Cuomo, the governor has been much more fiscally conservative in his approach to the state debt. Moreover, in his dealings with the state legislature "he has been more conciliatory than combative."
Tim Russert, who worked as Governor Cuomo's general counsel, agrees that "when national Democrats heard the keynote speech, they believed it was a call to arms. But when Cuomo quells a prison riot, when he refuses to raise broad-based taxes, he is the quintessential centrist to New Yorkers." Joe Crangle contrasted Cuomo's style with that of a typical "Manhattan Democrat." "Cuomo," he says, "is tolerant of another person's viewpoint. The liberal Manhattan Democrat is not tolerant and is not understanding of a person's social and cultural background. Many liberal Democrats think that if you don't agree with their viewpoint, you're not a Democrat." Crangle offered another contrast, between two kinds of politicians. "There's a person who goes into politics because of his need to pontificate about what is right and wrong and his own theories of government"--in other words, an ideologue. Then "there's the person who goes into politics because he really wants to help people, he gets turned on by people"--in other words, a pragmatist. In Crangle's view, "Carter didn't really enjoy people. Kennedy enjoyed people. Governor Cuomo enjoys people."
Mayor Koch is much more of a controversialist. According to Auletta, "Koch personalizes things to a great extent. He is a hater" That is one reason why Koch got into trouble with corruption, Auletta believes. "He was so geared up to fighting his enemies, whom he identified as reform liberal Democrats, that he assumed, 'Anyone who is an enemy of my enemy must be my friend.'"
Koch's behavior in this year's New York Democratic presidential primary was widely criticized as disgraceful. In his attacks on Jesse Jackson he deliberately stirred up tensions between blacks and Jews. More precisely, as the Manhattan borough president, David Dinkins, put it to The New York Times, Koch "exacerbated tensions that already existed." The racial politics of the New York primary suggested that New York was not far from becoming another Illinois. But there was one big difference: Democrats in New York responded negatively to Koch's confrontationalism. His candidate, Senator Albert Gore, Jr., was trounced in the primary. New Yorkers gave a decisive victory to Dukakis, who stayed as far away from racial politics as possible.
Senator Moynihan's appeal is based on something quite different--more like stature. Kirwan called him "a world-class senator and one of the most significant thinkers in Congress." David Sawyer, who is working on Moynihan's re-election campaign this year, called him "an icon." He said, "New York occasionally has senators, like Lehman and Javits, who are national figures, whom you can respect. Moynihan is one of them." In perhaps his strongest accolade Crangle called Moynihan "an unhyphenated Democrat."
Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appear to have solved the problem that looms largest over the national Democratic Party--holding on to the white middle class. Russert said, "There is a middle class that was part of the New Deal Democratic coalition. These are people who moved to the suburbs and became moderately affluent, whose hearts are Democratic but whose minds have become Republican. But they can return to the Democratic fold."
"Race is very important," he added. "That's the reason they fled the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens. But economics is real too. They're on the margins. They take care of their mothers and fathers who still live in the city, and they're paying for their kids' going to college. They don't want to be hurt in their pocketbooks. If they have a sense that someone's too radical, liberal, or conservative, they punish him. All other things being equal, their instincts are to vote Democratic, but in most presidential races all things haven't been equal. They saw no equality between Reagan and Mondale."
Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appeal to this constituency in different ways. As one Democrat put it to me, "Cuomo appeals to their hopes and Koch appeals to their fears." And Moynihan, it might be added, appeals to their sense of pride. Not only do the three different approaches work but they work with the same voters. And the national Democratic Party has been unable to use any of them.
David Garth told me the story of a "big money guy" from the South with whom he was discussing politicians. "He says, 'You know, the two guys we like are Cuomo and Nunn.' I say, 'Cuomo? Why do you want a liberal from New York?' The money guy says, 'Well, he's the one candidate that the guy in the bar figures looks like them, talks like them, but is smarter than them.'" Garth elaborated, "Every other candidate went to Harvard Business School. Ordinary people can't relate to them. Mario, with the big nose and the big chest, even when he talks big words, he's talking to us." Koch has a similar appeal: "When Koch opens his mouth, he's a lower-middle-class white. He's one of them. They can relate to him."
How much of the appeal that these men hold for white middle-class voters has to do with race? A lot, clearly, in Koch's case. "Koch in a certain way is very gutsy," Garth observed. "Even though he is distrusted by black voters and hated by the black press, nobody has spent as much time in the black community as Koch. He'll fight with them, and they like it, because they figure it's not pandering." In fact, when Koch won re-election, in 1985, he carried the black vote. Many observers surmised that Koch's attacks on Jackson in the primary this year represented a calculated shift in tactics. His objective might have been to provoke the black community into running a Jackson-endorsed black candidate against him for mayor next year. Koch may be betting that he could win a straightforward racial contest--but at the possible cost of turning New York City into Chicago.
Moynihan was widely criticized in the black community twenty years ago, when he published his views on the breakdown of the black family, and even more when, as an adviser to President Nixon, he remarked that blacks might benefit from a period of "benign neglect." But he, too, draws heavy support from black voters.
Cuomo initially made his reputation resolving a racial dispute over a public-housing project in Queens. He has acted as a moderator and a conciliator on racial issues. But, my disillusioned liberal said, "Ask people what policy in Cuomo's six years in office has been addressed directly to the problems of black people. You can't find any. The first year he was governor, Mario announced that they would provide five million dollars for a study. That's it." The lesson seemed clear, at least to this informant: "The Democratic Party of New York has been successful electorally precisely by learning the lesson of the elephant in the room. They flee, as from the plague, from any suggestion that racial problems should be addressed."
What they are in fact fleeing from is the lesson of John Lindsay. Lindsay polarized the city in the late 1960s by appearing to cave in to black demands. It all comes down to values. Lindsay's values were those of a cosmopolitan WASP elite. Cuomo and Koch are definitely not of that persuasion. The values question seems to be what Joe Crangle was talking about when he complained about the Manhattanization of the New York Democratic Party. I asked him whether he felt the same thing was true of the national Democratic Party--that its image has been Manhattanized. "Yes," he answered, adding that "the great advantage we have here in New York with Governor Cuomo" is that he counteracts that image. David Sawyer asserted that New Yorkers would also feel comfortable with Michael Dukakis, because he shares some of Cuomo's appeal. "He's a northeastern, centrist-to-liberal governor with an ethnic background. And he has the Massachusetts model. We're comfortable with him."
Sawyer said that Dukakis was a "consensus-type character," as opposed to an adversarial figure, like Cuomo. He felt this could be a problem for Dukakis. "The people are going to look for strong leadership," Sawyer said. "They have to feel the person has strength, vision, toughness. That's a huge weakness Mike Dukakis has." In fact, toughness may be regarded as the national Democratic Party's principal problem--and the main reason why New York Democrats like Cuomo and Koch do so well. Democrats win when they nominate "tough liberals" like Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. They lose when they nominate "soft liberals" like Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale, each of whom might have been a preacher if he hadn't gone into politics. It is impossible to imagine Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson as a preacher. The Democrats won just once, in 1976, when they nominated a preacher for President. That was because after Watergate the voters wanted someone of unimpeachable character and integrity who would never lie to them. The experience with Jimmy Carter seemed to many to prove the rule: If you elect a preacher, you will probably get someone who isn't tough enough for the job.
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.