Political realignment means little right now ON POLITICS



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When Birmingham-Southern Colleg held a symposium on Southern politics the other day, one of the central questions was whether the election of Democrat Bill Clinton signals a political realignment. The problem is the premise that any continuing alignment is possible in American politics these days.

The folly of talking realignment was exposed for all to see over the past 12 years. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 on a set of ideas radically different from those that had controlled Washington thinking for a generation, and there was much talk of the "Reagan revolution."

But all of that went up in smoke even before he completed his second term. Although Republicans made some nominal gains in the South during the Reagan years, the party is no stronger in terms of its strength in senators, congressmen, mayors, governorships or state legislators than when he arrived. Indeed, a case can be made that the GOP is even weaker institutionally, and not only because of the defeat President Bush suffered Nov. 3.

That history does not necessarily suggest that the Democrats may not have a long run in control in Washington. That depends largely on whether the new president and his allies in Congress are successful in reviving the economy and finding solutions to such compelling problems as the weaknesses of the health care system.

But political control of even the White House and Congress does not equate with realignment as it is usually defined. Realignment implies a sorting out of the electorate on the basis of conflicting ideas and approaches to government that offer voters clear choices. It also implies that party labels have significant meaning for voters.

In the 1930s, for example, the Democratic Party became identified with the approaches to economic and social questions in the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a natural gathering place for minorities and others economically disadvantaged. Similarly, the Republican Party was a natural for the business community that resisted the activist federal role and the taxes that went with it. The political alignment became even sharper during the 1950s and 1960s when the dominant issue was civil rights and politicians could be sorted out as liberal or conservative on the basis of their views on a genuine watershed issue.

These days, however, there are no comparable issues on which to sort out politicians or on which voters can base their commitments to one party or the other. Although it remains true that Democrats are more inclined to government activism and Republicans less so, there are no issues on the table with the kind of high ideological and emotional content required to capture public attention.

The one issue that seems to evoke a highly emotional response is abortion rights. However, although it is clearly causing serious problems within the embattled Republican Party, abortion is not an issue on which most of the electorate seems inclined to base its decisions about party allegiance.

That is the core of the problem with talking about political realignment. Political dialogue these days has to do almost entirely with methods and policies rather than basic national directions. Clinton and Bush obviously share the goal of a revitalized economy that will provide jobs and make it possible to reduce the federal deficit, and Clinton was elected because he made a more plausible case that he could accomplish that purpose.

What Clinton most assuredly did not do was establish an ideological identity that would be polarizing. Instead, he ran as a centrist "different kind of Democrat" so he could reach beyond the last fragments of the New Deal coalition.

But Clinton's future -- and that of the Democratic Party -- is directly related to his immediate performance. This is an era of querulous electorates that will turn out an incumbent president without any qualms -- as Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and now George Bush can testify. If Clinton doesn't deal effectively with the economic concerns, voters will not return him for a second term because he is a Democrat.

The questions about political realignment are obvious whenever control of the White House changes hands. But they have little meaning in the real world of politics today.

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