A political era comes to an end, most quietly No matter who wins

Alan Ehrenhalt

November 03, 1992|By Alan Ehrenhalt

WE expect eras to end with a big noise in presidential politics: with the sound of a cannon, as in 1861, when the Democrats lost everything; with the collapse of a boom into outright depression, as in 1933, when the Republicans' world fell apart.

We aren't trained to expect cataclysmic change from an election year as petty and mundane as this one has been.

But an era is ending and in the weeks to come we should finally begin to see this clearly. It was an era in which presidential elections, for all their seeming complexity, were decided more than anything else on one issue -- the belief of the middle class that the Democratic Party intended to take their money away and give it to a disorderly, undeserving and often violent minority.

This issue elected Richard Nixon in 1968. And it permitted George Bush to triumph over Michael Dukakis 20 years later.

Ronald Reagan was not, as so many Republicans hoped he would be, the symbol of a new day in American politics. The day was half over as he arrived.

When Mr. Reagan took the oath of office in 1980, it was not just noon on the Inauguration Day clock, it was also noon for the Republican era in late 20th century politics.

And 1992 is dusk. Certainly, it remains possible that today the peculiar three-cornered contest will allow George Bush to win re-election with a vote no larger than the 38 percent Barry Goldwater received in 1964.

But even if that happens, the evidence is overwhelming that 1992 represents something new in politics.

In every presidential election since 1968 the middle-class concerns of race and crime have been at the center of campaign debate. This year they have scarcely been discussed.

In every election since 1968 it has been a disadvantage to be associated too closely with legalized abortion, gay rights and similar challenges to social orthodoxy. This year it has been a disadvantage to be on the orthodox side of these issues.

In every election since 1968 it has been possible to raise fears about the Democrats' ability to cope with the communist threat. This year, there are hardly any communists to be threatened by.

Taxes remain a touchy subject. But during the last month of the campaign Ross Perot rose dramatically in the polls at a time when his only specific proposal for reviving the economy was a 50 cent gasoline tax.

No candidate could have done that with impunity in 1988, 1984 or 1980.

This year's campaign has been a game played on a new board with a whole new set of rules.

The first new rule is hard times. It is a remarkable fact that, while the decline of U.S. economic strength, real wages and living standards goes back to the early 1970s, only one presidential election in the past 25 years -- 1980 -- has been held in what might legitimately be described as a climate of austerity.

In each of the other campaigns, the economy was merely an issue. It was not, for most of America, the subject of terror in the night.

In the 1992 electorate it is easy to camouflage the depth of economic fear behind the statistical facts of low inflation, low interest rates and less than alarming unemployment.

When these economic statistics were run through computer models that had accurately predicted past elections, the result was a comfortable victory for Mr. Bush. But those models are wrong because the economic reality of 1992 renders such conventional statistics obsolete.

The reality is this: Breadwinners all over the country have been forced out of well-paid manufacturing jobs into low-wage work they regard as beneath their dignity and living standard.

Families of four struggle to survive on two $15,000 incomes, sacrificing virtually all of their free time together. Middle-aged Americans, born into relative affluence in 1955 or 1960, believe not only that they have failed to achieve the comfort they expected in life but that they are never going to achieve it.

What the economic models do not detect and what most experts took forever to realize is that for many of these people, 1992 is the political equivalent of 1932.

One can carry this too far, of course. Unemployment is not 25 percent, there are no shantytowns in Washington. But 1932 is worth thinking about for a variety of reasons.

Herbert Hoover, the incumbent president, a man of dignity and personal accomplishment, appeared painfully unable to understand what was happening to the country.

"There seems to be a condition of hysteria," Hoover observed in 1931, in a tone of genuine befuddlement. "If someone could get off a good joke every 10 days, I think our troubles would be over."

That suggests one way to test for the close of an era in American politics: Look for an elected leader who seems addled by the changes that have taken place around him.

Eras end in the sentence fragments of presidents who seem unsure about why they are there and what they are supposed to do. Eras also end, it is reasonable to expect, with a considerable change of faces at all levels of the political system.

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