Silber's Shocker

September 21, 1990

On the day the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press released poll results saying Americans are losing faith in their political institutions, especially the Democratic Party, Massachusetts voters gave dramatic confirmation of that finding. John Silber, the president of Boston University and newcomer to politics, won the Democratic nomination for governor in a stunning upset over Francis X. Bellotti, who has been a party stalwart and high level government official since the early 1960s.

Employing the traditional definition, Mr. Silber is a Democrat in name only. He would be considered a maverick in any state -- but especially in Massachusetts, where Democratic liberalism has been triumphant for two decades. He voted for George Bush and Ronald Reagan. In his campaign he uttered a number of so-called "Silber Shockers," alienating important elements of the old Democratic coalition. He said the elderly ought to accept fate and die rather than burden the state with the costs of heroic medicine. He insulted feminists, blacks and ethnics. He derided welfare. He heaped scorn on the Democratic establishment, especially Mr. Bellotti and Gov. Michael Dukakis.

The Times Mirror poll found that in the past three years Americans identifying themselves as Democrats fell 4 percent to 33, while those identifying themselves as Republicans rose 3 percent to 28. If that keeps up, there could be more Republicans than Democrats in 1992. When was that last true? According to the Gallup Poll, 1946.

An eye-opening finding by the Times Mirror pollsters was that the Democrats' biggest loss was among one of its foundation elements -- the so-called "partisan poor." The members of that group who call themselves Democrats fell from 89 percent to 57 percent. Most who switched couldn't go the whole way to Republicanism. They became independents. In Massachusetts Tuesday, the Silber victory was created by independents. They can vote in either party's primary there. Mr. Bellotti carried the Democratic voters, but enough fed-up independents cast Democratic ballots for Mr. Silber to give him his victory.

Independents also provided the margin for an upset victory in the Republican primary in Massachusetts. Politics as usual -- especially the partisan variety -- may well be hanging on by its fingernails. Voters this year are in a

mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore mood. The best evidence of that this week was not the Massachusetts election or the Times Mirror poll. It was the outcome of a ballot question in Oklahoma. Sooners of both parties voted 67-33 to limit the number of years state legislators can hold office. That may not be good political science, but it sure sends the needed message that officeholders at all levels of government had better start doing a better job than they've been doing.

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