Self-Fulfilling Political Suicide

July 17, 1991

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., was correct last week to chastise those party officials who have hinted at "writing off" his and 13 other states as un-winnable in the 1992 presidential race. (The states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Wyoming and Virginia.)

It is true that in politics you have to go duck hunting where the ducks are, as Sen. Barry Goldwater once put it. And it is true that these 14 states have been voting Republican for years. It is logical to plan for 1992 on the basis of the fact that Utah, for example, went Republican by 67 percent in 1988 and by 75 percent in 1984. Even if Michael Dukakis had doubled his turnout in 1988, he still would have lost the state, said Paul Tully, the Democratic National Committee's political director. Not enough Democratic ducks in Utah.

But drawing up such strategy maps ignores the fact that things change. Governor Dukakis carried Iowa and Oregon in 1988. Both states had gone Republican five straight times before that year. He carried Washington, which had gone Republican four straight times. Strategic planning of the sort Mr. Tully and the DNC are said to be engaged in would have led to writing those states off last time. Four of the 14 states on the list went Democratic in 1976, and 11 did in 1964. If the voters in those states were given an attractive candidate running on an attractive platform in 1992, the Democrats could win some of them again.

The DNC's thinking seems to assume that national strategy can be made without regard to the presidential nominee and the platform. Clearly that is not so. Would a ticket headed by Lloyd Bentsen or Sam Nunn not try to win in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia? Would a ticket headed by Senator Kerrey write off Kansas and Nebraska?

This sort of DNC planning is not only mistaken, it is harmful. It suggests to the nation that the office suites of inside-the-beltway professionals are where national policy decisions are really made, not primaries and state and national conventions. Such arrogance turns off some voters. Writing off states and regions also will lead many voters in those states and regions -- and in other, adjacent ones with similar characteristics -- to write off the Democratic Party in 1992. Not only in the general election, but in the primaries.

Which voters will react that way? The moderate and conservative ones typical of their regions. Thus the Democratic nominating process will be tilted even more left of center and toward another un-electable standard bearer. Writing off states is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the likely result of which will be the fourth straight self-inflicted loss of a presidential election.

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