Issues drown in Persian Gulf

September 14, 1990|By William Schneider

THE DEMOCRATS had a script for the 1990 election. They were going to hammer the Republicans on the economy, the savings and loan crisis and abortion.

The Republicans also had a script for the 1990 election. The party's challengers were going to run a coordinated anti-incumbent campaign. Their plan was to appeal to growing public resentment of Congress over influence peddling, pay raises and failure to deal with the federal budget deficit.

Both sides have had to shelve their scripts for the time being. For the past six weeks, the Persian Gulf crisis has not only dominated the news. It has also controlled the political agenda. No one can change the subject -- not even President Bush. When the president attacked the Democrats at his Aug. 14 news conference for allowing the budget process to break down, he was roundly criticized for using divisive rhetoric at a time of national crisis.

It's not that other issues have disappeared. They haven't. According to the CBS-New York Times Poll, more than 60 per cent of Americans believe the country is already in a recession. Pessimism about the economy is greater now than at any point since the 1982 recession.

Moreover, the public is increasingly frustrated by the S&L crisis. People are rapidly losing confidence in financial institutions -- more than 60 per cent say they are worried about the safety of thrift deposits, while 40 per cent express concern over the safety of deposits in commercial banks. A majority disapproves of the way Bush has handled the situation.

There is a lot of anger at incumbents: 44 per cent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, and about the same share feel that most members of Congress are corrupt. Even more threatening, about 40 per cent say that their own Member does not deserve to be reelected.

Will the Persian Gulf crisis override these concerns and drive the vote in November? Not necessarily. A foreign policy crisis can dominate a presidential election. But mid-term elections are less-than-presidential elections, and they usually turn on less-than-presidential issues.

In July 1958, Eisenhower sent Marines into Lebanon. But there was a recession that year, and the Republicans lost six governors, 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats. In September 1978, President Carter negotiated the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.

But it was the year of the tax revolt, and the Democrats lost three senators, five governors and 16 house members. In October 1986, President Reagan turned the Reykjavik summit into a public relations triumph. His ratings soared, but the GOP still lost control of the Senate.

The impact of the Persian Gulf crisis is indirect. It doesn't control the vote. It controls the campaign agenda. Challengers find it hard to get the voters' attention.

As long as the crisis is dominating the news, candidates find it hard to talk about other issues. No one is paying attention. That's bad news for Democrats, because they have better issues this year. For instance, there are still a lot of good arguments for making cuts in defense spending. But now is not the best time for Democrats to make them.

"What Iraq has done is take everything off the radar screen," Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, said Senate hearings on Judge David H. Souter's Supreme Court nomination will probably not be the occasion for a Great Debate on abortion, as a lot of Democrats had hoped. Nor is there likely to be a serious policy debate about how we got into the S&L mess. Instead, the thrift debacle has become a "character" issue, with candidates accusing each other of profiteering and influence-peddling.

Democrats will find it hard to run on the environment at a time when the country is worried about energy sources. What about new energy taxes for the patriotic purpose of reducing dependence on foreign oil? People are not likely to be receptive to new energy taxes when they are already in a rage over gasoline prices.

Bush's approval ratings were dropping rapidly over the spring and summer, as the economy declined. Now the gulf crisis has pushed his popularity back up to record highs. The Democrats dare not attack the president now.

Both parties expected 1990 to be something of a dry run for 1992, when Republicans hope to make their push for control of Congress. This year, they wanted to see how far they could get by running against Congress. Democrats wanted to try out their new populist profile -- Democrats as the party of fairness against the GOP as the party of greed, scandal and recession.

Not gonna happen, as Bush would say. The Republicans will probably not suffer as much as they might have for the bad economy. The Democrats will probably escape the full wrath of anti-incumbent voting.

In the end, the 1990 campaign will mean about as little for 1992 as the 1982 campaign did for 1984, or as the 1986 campaign did for 1988. It's a mid-term. There's a crisis. And no one is listening.

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