Today, you don't have to be a smoothy to win ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 30, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At a coffee in Wilkes-Barre a few days before the Pennsylvania primary, Lynn Yeakel was asked for her views on the "notch babies." As she cheerfully admitted later, she had no idea who the "notch babies" might be.

In another year, the idea of a leading candidate for the U.S. Senate who didn't know about the notch babies would have been unthinkable. For 15 years now, presidential and Senate and House candidates have become accustomed to being confronted by representatives of this group -- Americans born between 1917 and 1926 who because of an anomaly in the law receive lower Social Security benefits than others who came before and after them.

But this is 1992 and the gaps in Lynn Yeakel's knowledge were no handicap in her ability to defeat Lt. Gov. Mark Singel and win the Democratic nomination to oppose the Republican incumbent, Arlen Specter, in the Nov. 3 election. The voters clearly believe that the pro forma expertise on issues politicians routinely acquire is no measure of whether they would make an effective elected official.

On the contrary, the electorate of 1992 is obviously beguiled by the whole notion of amateurism in politics, meaning candidates from outside the establishment who bring a fresh approach to the campaign. Or, put another way, what the voters have discovered is that ability of a candidate to hold forth on every issue has little or nothing to do with how effective or responsive that candidate would be as an officeholder.

There was another, related lesson in the fine print of the Pennsylvania results: the finding in the exit poll that in matchups against President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Ross Perot received the backing of one-fourth of the voters of both parties. This was particularly striking because primary voters generally are considered far more party-oriented than voters at large. Independents can't vote in Pennsylvania.

Yeakel's success and the sentiment for Perot may be sending a message that Bush and Clinton would be wise to heed. The voters seem to be saying that the usual credentials are no longer determinative. The ability to blather on about, say, the defense budget may count for far less than the image of independent thinking from outside the political world.

Whether Clinton or Bush could change anything if they understood that message is, of course, another question. They are both quintessential political insiders, career politicians whose nature seems to require that they talk in laundry lists of positions on issues. Some astute Democratic professionals believe Clinton's problems with the electorate are not entirely an outgrowth of questions about his integrity but also closely related to the image he projects as another know-it-all smoothy when he discusses issues.

The response to the realities of 1992 by both Clinton and Bush suggests that maybe they just don't get it. Both of them are talking about change -- a real reach for an incumbent -- but presenting themselves largely in terms of their conventional political credentials. Bush is the experienced incumbent; Clinton is the veteran governor who has dealt with all these issues at the state level.

Similarly orthodox thinking is evident in the way both Yeakel and Perot have been regarded. In the final days of the primary campaign Singel was clearly baffled by the threat from a social activist without any political experience. He had been doing all the "right" things to move up the ladder, he argued, and thus had prepared himself to run against Specter in a way Yeakel could not match. But the real question is whether Pennsylvania voters would be willing to replace one conventional politician with another.

Perot is treated with massive condescension by the political community, including much of the press. The story is that he may be attractive now before anyone knows his view on "the issues," but that he eventually will be exposed as a fraud. After all, where is his experience in constructing a foreign policy or dealing with Congress? How is he going to stand up to the pressure of nagging press corps?

These may be legitimate questions, and Perot may prove to be temperamentally unsuited to be a successful presidential candidate. But neither Ross Perot nor Lynn Yeakel will fail because they don't know about the notch babies.

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