The two main political disputes of 1990 -- over control of government and over the shape of the federal budget -- have been brought together by their coinciding calendars in an explosive mixture.The talk in Washington now has it that the coming blast, triggered by concerns over "fairness," will probably rock George Bush and the Republicans. The Democrats are, of course, doing their best to see that this happens -- and have gotten an unexpected measure of help from the president.
Even so, the underlying frustration moving American voters today -- as throughout the year -- is something quite different from a sense that the rich have profited unduly during the Reagan years and that they may do so again when and if a budget package materializes.
The cause of voter anger is the sense that the government taxes too much and spends unwisely, fattening all manner of special interests at the expense of the public good.
Elements of this reaction, often referred to as a taxpayers' revolt, have been around for a long time, of course, and ushered in Reaganism a decade ago. But increased tax bites, especially at the state and local level, together with a slowing economy, have been fanning the protest through 1990.
"There's a perception that government isn't working," political analyst William Schneider concludes.
"People are mad at the system, and term limits are the perfect expression of their views."
The manifestations of the revolt are all around -- in the widespread push for limits on terms that elected officials can serve, as cited by Mr. Schneider; in tax limitation initiatives; in the wholesale repudiation of the Democratic establishment in Massachusetts last month; in a general surge of "kick the rascals out" sentiment.
The prime target of the voter revolt of 1990 is indeed "the establishment," though not in earlier understandings of that term. It's the establishment of modern U.S. government.
Many Democratic officials and strategists have understood this, though only a few, such as Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, have responded directly to its essential demand. The party's principal response has been to attempt to redirect the protest -- away from the establishment of big government, to an older establishment, the rich and privileged.
The political rationale can be grasped by any bright 5-year-old. If the Democrats are the party of establishmentarian government, the Republicans remain associated in the public's eye with privilege. If the year's powerful anti-establishment impulses could be rechanneled against the rich -- by arguing, in effect, that both parties want more taxes, but that the Republicans would let the rich escape from them -- the Democrats might regain ground lost to the GOP in the 1980s.
Just such a strategy was outlined by Brookings Institution political analyst Tom Mann: "Now I think [the Democrats] can play their 'fairness card' [in the coming elections] and talk about how they couldn't get a deal because they are trying to get the president to tax the rich."
Republicans do suffer from the perception that they favor the rich. When CBS News asked potential voters in 1988 which party would do more for the poor, only 12 percent said the GOP (74 percent, the Democrats). The results for the middle class weren't much better; little more than a quarter (28 percent) said the GOP would do more; 56 percent, the Democrats. The results were
reversed for the rich. By 73 percent to 10 percent, Americans thought the Republicans would be more solicitous.
This is hardly new. Franklin D. Roosevelt labeled the Republicans "economic royalists" and "princes of privilege," and a residual suspicion of the party still exists.
Sensitivity to "fairness" was so acute in the early Reagan years that the White House Office of Policy Information issued two documents about the Reagan record, Fairness I and Fairness II, to address the accusations.
What are the consequences of the perceptions of a GOP tilt toward the rich? If we look at the results of the last six presidential elections, the answer would appear to be "not much." In every election but one, Americans have voted for the Republican candidate who -- by poll findings -- would appear to be more disposed toward the rich.
This obvious observation is confirmed by other evidence suggesting fairness is not a politically potent weapon. Identification with the GOP is now at record heights, a significant gain for the GOP since the early 1980s. The picture is even more striking among 18- to 29-year-olds, who in CBS data identify themselves as 58 percent Republican, 34 percent Democratic -- hardly an indication of significant Republican vulnerability.
The public clearly has a number of different standards for assessing the parties. The GOP still leads the Democrats as the party best able to manage the economy and the the nation's defense; the Democrats lead on fairness. Presidential voting and party identification trends suggest that the GOP's overall advantage is the greater one.