Three Books with Ideas Thats Candidates Avoid

June 13, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — In a ''normal'' year, I would be writing this column from Des Moines, Iowa, because candidates for president, Democrats at least, would already be there campaigning for next year's delegate-selection caucuses.

But this time, so far, there is no serious presidential contest there or anyplace else. What's a political reporter to do until some Tom, Dick or Mario decides to challenge President Bush and the conventional wisdom that the wimp who came in third in the 1988 Iowa Republican caucuses is now invincible?

Well, we could read books. Three that I've read in the past month have more ideas than most candidates do. The books, rather painfully, tell us a good deal about what is wrong with American democracy at the end of the 20th century:

* ''The United States of Ambition,'' by Alan Ehrenhalt (Times Book) begins with a question: ''Who sent these people?'' meaning the men and women who run for and eventually hold political office. His answer: They send themselves.

Mr. Ehrenhalt's point is that we now have supply-side politics. Political leaders, he argues, from town halls to the White House are essentially self-selected.

Old-fashioned self-government by caring, corrupt or self-serving citizens, usually lawyers and businessmen, has been destroyed by a new breed of politicians who decide early in life, usually as teen-agers, that they will work 16 hours a day, every day, to get and hold public office because it's fun.

We are more and more being governed by political nerds, a new kind of professional politician who has never even considered doing something else for a living.

They begin, right out of college or law school, as campaign aides or political staffers. Running is their life: name identification, the avoidance of controversy, fast constituent service and raising funds for future campaigns.

The new pols have, in general, higher IQs and more energy than the Rotarians and Lions who used to win local office and sometimes moved on to state capitals or Washington. One result is a preponderance of Democrats in Congress and state legislatures, because Republicans prefer citizen-politics that allows them the time for private business and capital accumulation.

Another result, particularly in California, is a move toward limits on political tenure, a blunt instrument but probably the only way to beat some of these professionals back into the private sector.

* ''Why Americans Hate Politics,'' by E.J. Dionne Jr. (Simon and Schuster), a Washington Post reporter, is the best book of

political analysis by a journalist in many years. He argues that 1960s liberals and 1980s conservatives drove Americans away from politics because both distrusted ''the people'' and wanted to institutionalize idealistic and ideological agendas without the interference of inattentive or hostile voters.

His perspective is generational, stretching across three decades, from the ideas and influence of the Catholic Worker movement to the bonding of rock 'n' roll and especially rock disc jockeys to the celebration of individualism and individual greed.

Mr. Dionne traces the Democratic decline to the 1960s and the urge to become the party of all the people by becoming the

party of all groups of people allowing the Republicans to define liberalism as the politics of ''special interests.''

''When the poor are seen as a 'special interest' while the wealthy are not,'' he writes, ''something very peculiar has happened to the national political dialogue.''

So it has. A ghost walks through this book: liberal Republicanism as in ''Whatever happened to . . . ?'' Mr. Dionne calls for a ''new political center,'' uniting the great American middle class and the men and women of the reasonable left and the reasonable right to produce something like the politics of Nelson Rockefeller in FTC the 1960s: rhetorical conservatism and operational liberalism, a rational balance between individual freedom and community obligation.

* ''When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children,'' by Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Basic Books) is not a political book, but it offers an angry assessment of the triumph of the wants and needs of old people, who vote, over the needs of children too young to vote.

She offers a devastating statistical index of where tax money goes, beginning with the fact that 22.9 percent of the federal budget is devoted to the elderly, compared with just 4.8 percent that benefits children.

The percentage change in federal spending on children from 1978 to 1987, she says, was down 4 percent, while spending on the elderly during the same period increased 52 percent. The cost of Head Start per child per year, she reports, is $3,000, compared with an annual cost of $20,000 a year if one of those children goes to jail.

None of these books is recommended beach reading. But there are more energy and ideas in them than there were in Iowa four years ago.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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