Two lessons from the election: one positive, one negative


November 11, 1990|By Jack W. GERMONDand JULES WITCOVER

Washington -- There are two lessons, one positive and one negative, that may be drawn from the 1990 election results in a way that will have a significant impact on future campaigns.

The first comes from the demonstration by Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina that the affirmative-action issue -- defined by him as "racial quotas" -- is what political operatives call a "silver bullet" that can move a substantial segment of an electorate. The second lesson, taught by Lawton Chiles in winning the governorship of Florida, is that improving the political process itself can be made the foundation of a campaign when the voters are as dissatisfied with the status quo as they are today.

Going into the final days in North Carolina, Mr. Helms was running clearly behind Democrat Harvey Gantt in most published opinion polls. Even when Mr. Gantt's figures were discounted to allow for whites who do not always tell poll-takers the truth about their feelings for a black candidate, the race appeared essentially even.

To no one's surprise, Mr. Helms launched a final barrage of negative television advertising, including one frightening spot suggesting that Mr. Gantt was running some secret conspiracy with homosexual supporters.

But the silver bullet was a spot showing a white worker crumpling a notification that he had been turned down for a job that had to be given instead to "a minority" applicant. Mr. Gantt, the commercial said, was a supporter of just such "racial quotas." And the spot noted that the ultimate bogeyman, Ted Kennedy, was the sponsor of those quotas, a reference to the 1990 civil rights bill that President Bush vetoed.

The use of the issue was particularly striking because it seemed to employ race in a more direct way than any Southern politician has done in a generation -- except, of course, in the case of David Duke, who used the same affirmative-action issue as the foundation for his strong showing in Louisiana. For politicians, the message was clear that this is one that works.

The issue is an awkward one for Democrats. They cannot turn their backs on affirmative action, so they can only insist -- as they did in passing the 1990 bill and as Mr. Gantt did in the final days of the campaign -- that they don't support quotas, either. But the polling data suggest that they are on the wrong side of the curve, particularly in states where there is a substantial minority population, with the added pressure of a declining economy.

From the conservative standpoint, the beauty of defining the issue as "quotas" is that it seems to insulate it from overt racism. That is precisely the approach President Bush took in vetoing the bill and his supporters did in sustaining that veto. So it would be naive to believe that the issue will not surface again in many campaigns in 1992, perhaps even in the presidential campaign, despite the implications of racism. If George Bush did not blink at using Willie Horton, he can hardly be expected to be uncomfortable talking about quotas.

But if the Helms case provided an example of negative politics at its worst, Lawton Chiles may have provided an example of something better. His decision to limit campaign contributions to $100, derided at the time as hopelessly unrealistic, proved to be a success as both a technique and a metaphor.

Mr. Chiles received some 65,000 contributions averaging less than $70 each, which meant $4 million-plus for his campaign -- enough to buy adequate, if not truly competitive, media exposure against Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

More importantly, it allowed the Democratic nominee to make the case that he was offering a radical change from politics as usual -- a governor who could not be accused of being in the pocket of big contributors.

The Chiles approach may not work for every candidate. Because he had served three terms in the Senate and followed a similar policy, he enjoyed an image as a "Mr. Clean." The same was true of his running mate for lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay, on the basis of his reformist history in both the state legislature and the Congress. Unknown challengers obviously would be under far more pressure to raise more money simply to become known.

But, as Sen.-elect Paul Wellstone showed in Minnesota, money is not always a substitute for an aggressive and imaginative campaign. And there are many already well-known politicians who could follow the example of Mr. Chiles.

Everybody likes to talk about running against the system these days. Lawton Chiles showed that the talk carries more force when you are willing to do something about it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.

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