A Democratic Sun Rises in the West

GEORGE F. WILL

November 07, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. FTC — Washington -- Six days after the government announced that by late summer one in ten Americans -- a record -- was on food stamps, Pennsylvanians emphatically declined to make Richard Thornburgh, formerly (among other things) head of President Bush's Domestic Policy Council, one of their senators.

On election day, before Mr. Bush suddenly discovered that his trip to Asia was not, after all, urgent, he grumpily complained -- are you ready for this? -- that Harris Wofford had used negative ads. Mr. Bush did not blush. Amazing.

Mr. Wofford had said, ''November 5 is going to be the first day of the end of the Bush administration.'' Maybe. But Democrats have almost perfected Negative Infallibility: everything they think is exactly wrong. They may so utterly misconstrue Mr. Wofford's win that it becomes more a menace than a benefit.

The first real lesson is banal: Ideas beat resumes every time. Mr. Thornburgh, former governor (twice) and U.S. attorney general, actually bragged about being at home in Washington's ''corridors of power.'' Voters want to erect guillotines in those corridors.

Mr. Thornburgh ran partly as President Bush's surrogate, partly as Spike Lee: his ads closed with the words ''Do the right thing. Vote for Thornburgh.'' Good grief. Mr. Bush gave Mr. Wofford a boost by visiting Pennsylvania three times in eight weeks, thereby helping nationalize the election, making it a referendum on the nation's trajectory, which most Americans think is down. (Mr. Bush thinks it is a good time to buy a house.)

But it will take an unusual Democratic candidate, and an unprecedented sunburst of sanity in the party's nominating constituency, to mine the seam of unrest that Harris Wofford struck.

The Democratic Party is pre-eminently the party of government, the party that for six decades has encouraged the centralizing tendencies that have made Washington what it is. But Mr. Wofford, a real hero of the civil-rights movement when George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door, ran the most effective anti-Washington campaign since . . . George Wallace.

He gave to charity the pay raise Congress voted itself in the dead of night. He endorsed term limits for Congress. He said the free medical care Congress provides itself should be abolished until there is national health care.

Yesterday, while Senator Wofford was still happily combing the confetti from his hair, in many Democratic heads there were dancing visions of the Ultimate Sugarplum, Mario Cuomo. Would Mr. Wofford's proof (how often must the obvious be proved?) of the salience of domestic issues entice Governor Cuomo into running?

In 1968 Gene McCarthy, an intellectual Catholic, shocked Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Instantly, the nation's best-known Democrat, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York, moved to ride the tide Mr. McCarthy had discovered. Senator Wofford, an intellectual Catholic, may precipitate a decision by the nation's best-known Democrat, New York's governor.

But even disregarding Governor Cuomo's vulnerabilities -- his mercurial temperament, his association with the debris that is New York -- there is this inconvenience: Mr. Cuomo cannot run as president of Pennsylvania, or of a coalition of states enduring industrial decline. He may not be precisely the candidate wanted out there where more and more voters live, in the South and West. (Four years ago a Southern state's Democratic chairman said, ''We don't have many Marios down here.'')

One of Mr. Wofford's advantages was being so unknown he could create a persona convenient to this campaign season. Mr. Cuomo can't. A cautionary thought: Governor Cuomo's entry into the 1992 race is as hotly anticipated as was Ted Kennedy's entry into the 1980 race, and it is advocated by many of the people who incited Senator Kennedy's candidacy.

The day before Pennsylvania voted, Nebraska's Senator Bob Kerrey, an actual rather than hypothetical candidate, said some things that President Bush should find more unnerving than what Pennsylvania said. Drawing upon history in ways that should stir any Democrats who know their party's history, Mr. Kerrey said:

Jefferson's election in 1800 ended Federalist provincialism and inaugurated continental exploration. Jackson's election in 1828 signaled the rising of the common man against a monied aristocracy. FDR's election in 1932 heralded a new relationship of the citizen to the central government. Now another new era is dawning. ''Not since the New Deal have we examined the relevance of our national government. . . . We must begin by cleaning house here in Washington.''

He promised to prune the federal behemoth (his word) that ''has become either irrelevant or an adversary.'' He endorsed halving the number of cabinet positions (Reagan increased them), cutting non-entitlement expenditures 25 percent in a decade, cutting by 75 percent the number of congressional committees and subcommittees, and cutting congressional staff by 30 percent, all of which would help pay for national health care.

In the afterglow of Harris Wofford's win, Democrats will be forgiven for believing, prematurely, that for them it is, at last, morning in America. But their gaze should follow the path of the pioneers, across the Alleghenies. Nebraska, not New York, may be their empire state.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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