Profile of a voter who's so crucial this election

Dan Rodricks

July 20, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

He's the guy -- one of them, anyway -- Bill Clinton and George Bush will fight over.

He's a white male, about 50 years old, married and the father of a teen-ager. He lives in a middle-class-to-affluent suburb of Baltimore. He is colleged-educated, a partner in a highly successful business.

He liked John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. As a college student in Maryland, he was a CORE volunteer -- to those who have forgotten, that stands for Congress Of Racial Equality -- and took part in sit-ins at a segregated Prince George's County restaurant in the early 1960s. He protested the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy, then Bobby Kennedy. But after Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK were murdered, he hit a wall. He lost faith. He lost interest. After the corruptions of Watergate, he became completely alienated from American politics, especially the brand on which he had been nurtured.

This man I describe was a registered Democrat. He respected Jimmy Carter, but thought him a weak leader. He was even more turned off by Ronald Reagan, but still voted for him. He dismissed the "Reagan revolution" as old-fashioned, trickle-down economics, offered along with a classic Republican repudiation of the Great Society and all that Democrats had wrought. But he still voted for it. He heard no Democratic Party leader, except Walter Mondale and Jesse Jackson, offer to counter the revolution. Reagan won re-election in a landslide in 1984. The old Democratic Party seemed to be gone forever.

So what did my man do? He gave up on the Democrats and gave in to the Republicans.

He bought into the euphoria of the mid-1980s. He enjoyed a suburban yuppie lifestyle, and he focused his energies on his new business and the personal indulgences that his financial success allowed. He was, by 1988, exactly where the Republicans wanted him: Snuggled into a comfortable life of conspicuous consumption and political ambivalence.

In 1988, someone tried to get him interested in Albert Gore as a presidential contender. But when that didn't work out, and Michael Dukakis emerged as the Democratic nominee, my man went back into the cocoon.

I describe not simply a soured liberal from the '60s, but a mature, upper-middle-class businessman who enjoys fully the American Dream from the ultimate dreamland of affluent suburbia. He liked the Reagan revolution for the tax breaks; he knows that the growth of his personal wealth would not have been possible without them. He knows that, while the gap between rich and poor widened even more between 1980 and 1990, he came out on the smile side. He moved up several steps.

A guy like this should love Bush.

But he doesn't.

He's nervous about the economy and his business. He's nervous about losing what he gained in the 1980s. He's worried about putting his kid through college. He's worried that the only job his kid will find after college will be at Burger King. He sees a stagnant economy and a stagnant middle class. From his vantage in the suburbs, he can see that serious urban problems have been allowed to languish for years and that they are starting to creep into suburbia. He cares about the environment and appreciates Gore's efforts to integrate it into mainstream public policy. He wants a pro-business government but one that still has a heart.

He and his wife like Bill Clinton's message because it is moderate, because it marries social progress to economic progress. They like the call-to-arms character of Clinton's message, too, and that's something they haven't heard since the days of JFK. It's something they like their kid to hear from a president. They don't want another generation growing up with Reagan's instruction that government is the ultimate evil.

Clinton and Gore, both in their mid-40s, are appealing because they remind all children of the Baby Boom of what once was without ignoring what is. It's the compassion and passion of the '60s merging with the realties and pragmatics of the 1990s. And all who have been waiting for the Democratic Party to redefine itself must welcome it as long overdue.

George Bush had his chance to do something similar.

In 1988, he promised a "kinder, gentler" nation, implying unwittingly that the tenure of Ronald Reagan had been neither kind nor gentle. It had been hard on the poor; it had turned back the clock on domestic progress, race relations and environmental policy; it had further burdened the middle class.

Bush wanted to put heart and progressive thinking back into public policy. What he promised he did not deliver. But it's what Clinton and Gore are offering this time. My man likes what he hears. He might even believe it.

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