Scaring incumbents Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

September 20, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The primary election returns from Massachusetts are sending ripples of fear through the political community. The message seems to be that incumbents are in dire peril this year.

In truth, there were factors other than rage at the establishment in the primary successes of John Silber, the acerbic president of Boston University and new Democratic nominee for governor, and William Weld, the former federal prosecutor who won the GOP nomination. In the Democratic campaign, former Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti suffered from a wretched debate performance and his perception as a quintessential old pol. And House Minority Leader Steven Pierce, whom Weld trounced, was compromised by a past failure to file income tax returns.

But the reaction against Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic Party establishment in Massachusetts and liberalism was unmistakable. Among the primary losers, for example, were two leading figures of the party establishment, Attorney General James Shannon and House Speaker George Keverian, seeking the nomination for state treasurer.

Silber's controversial campaign was directed at touching all the sore spots among nominally Democratic but culturally conservative voters. Although his "Silber shockers" -- such as a suggestion that his audience in the black community would be "a group of drug addicts" -- may have offended those who believe political leaders should lead rather than divide, they obviously hit a nerve with voters fed up with what they see as liberal excess.

Weld's 3-to-2 success could be traced to heavy support among independents who lifted the turnout above what it was in the 1988 GOP presidential primary. And it suggested that he may represent a haven for moderate suburban whites looking for a reformer and unable to swallow Silber or Bellotti.

The results in Massachusetts are not the only evidence of anti-incumbent sentiment in the electorate this year. The same phenomenon was evident in the 2-to-1 vote in Oklahoma for a 12-year limit on the service of state legislators and in the success of political neophyte Sharon Pratt Dixon in winning the Democratic nomination for mayor of the District of Columbia. It may well be a factor in the perilous situation of state Treasurer Ann Richards of Texas in her campaign for governor against rancher-entrpreneur Clayton Williams. It is clearly a factor in the vulnerability of Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in Florida and in decisions by several other governors to retire rather than run for another term.

There also have been several primaries involving members of Congress who won by far less impressive margins than they might have expected because of an apparent resentment of the status quo.

It is unclear what the primary results in Massachusetts may mean about the shape of the general election campaign. As a whipping boy for Silber, Weld will not serve as Dukakis served. And it has yet to be demonstrated that, without Dukakis, the anger that Silber evoked will be reflected in a majority of the voters. Moreover, Weld has some obvious advantages in the image of the prosecutor from another party promising radical change on Beacon Hill. And although Weld does not unreservedly support abortion rights, he is likely to hold the iron side of that issue when compared with Silber. His prime problem may be the hard-line conservative Republicans who supported Pierce because they found him more ideologically satisfying.

The question in November is whether the voters' anger will have dissipated and they will now look at the question of who should be governor. The key is whether moderate and liberal Democrats and independents can bring themselves to support a Democratic nominee who keeps kicking over the traces of liberal dogma and, for heaven's sake, voted for both Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

But the warning to incumbents everywhere is written in the results even when the polls are late to detect it. Those who are seen as having put too much distance between themselves and their constituents may pay a heavy price at the polling places. The natives are restless.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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