Virginia is the future?

July 12, 1994|By Joe Klein

THERE IS, believe it or not, at least one southern Democrat still happy to associate himself with Bill Clinton in this joyless election year.

"I support the president, though we sometimes disagree," Sen. Charles S. Robb told a "unity breakfast" of Lynchburg Democrats last week. "Isn't it nice to worry about a president trying to do too much rather than too little for a change?"

Hmmm. One might conclude that Chuck Robb is just a stand-up guy -- and not be completely wrong.

But one might also look at Virginia's fractured Senate race, four major candidates running neck and neck, and smell a little politics in the wind: Mr. Robb is opposed by former governor Doug Wilder, among others.

Mr. Wilder, running as an independent, threatens to peel blacks away from the Democratic incumbent. Black voters tend to like the president (and love the party).

So: an appeal to party loyalty suddenly makes a lot of sense. And Mr. Robb, who has won in the past by zigging to the center, now finds himself zagging left.

The president should keep an eye on this one, and not just for the rare pleasure of hearing himself praised in a drawl.

Virginia may also provide a glimpse of his own future: The presidential campaign of 1996 could look a lot like this.

Indeed, it's possible that American politics is headed for a period of wholesale fragmentation, anarchy and reshuffling.

"The current structures are shattering; 1996 may be the last election in which partisan affiliation counts for much," says Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has worked for Ross Perot. "The only people left who express strong party loyalty are those over 55. Few under 32 have any allegiances at all."

To be sure, the 1994 Virginia Senate race is a unique tangle of personal rivalries and perversities -- especially on the Democratic side. Mr. Wilder and Mr. Robb have feuded forever (three Robb staffers pleaded guilty to -- and the senator himself was nearly indicted for -- conspiracy to tap Mr. Wilder's phones).

But the Republican conflict is part of an emerging national struggle, more structural than personal: Oliver North, America's Zhirinovsky, won the party's nomination in a state convention overrun by the religious right.

His candidacy induced Marshall Coleman, a former GOP state attorney general, to enter the race. Mr. Coleman -- wisely -- is fishing the middle of the stream, looking for support from secular Republicans and remnants of the local Perot movement.

He has an advantage: he's the only one of the four whose negative rating isn't higher than his positive. But then, he's the least known.

"The Republicans are in the midst of a blood war for the heart and soul of their party," says Mark Warner, Virginia's Democratic Party chairman. "It's sort of where we were in the 1970s."

Maybe a bit worse. The Democrats were overrun by liberals for a time, but the GOP may be in danger of a real split, divided as they are between secular and religious wings.

The party has shattered in Minnesota (where the incumbent GOP governor lost to a right-winger and may have to run as an independent); there's trouble in other states.

In 1996, the war will go national -- and it's not inconceivable that mainstream nominee (Bob Dole, say) would trigger a third-party challenge on the right, led by one of the Pats -- Buchanan or Robertson -- or perhaps Ollie North himself.

Or vice versa: if the religious right wins, centrists like (Connecticut independent governor) Lowell Weicker or Ross Perot -- or both, or others -- would rush to fill the vacuum.

And that's not all. Bill Clinton could face a challenge on the left. Democrats have a genius for arson. Their past three incumbents -- Truman, Johnson and Carter -- were torched by the faithful; why not Bill?

There are murmurs about Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader.

A few weeks ago on "Meet the Press," Tim Russert proposed the Graf Zeppelin of fragmentation scenarios: Colin Powell running as an independent to save the nation from a Dole-Buchanan-Perot-Clinton-Nader nadir.

Why all the wild talk? There are individual, pragmatic and cosmic explanations. The individual is Ross Perot: he did it; less of a flake, he might have won; ergo, it can be done. Frank Luntz makes the pragmatic argument: the existing parties are losing altitude.

Either or both might collapse, or be overwhelmed by a new movement (the right-wing fundamentalists of the 1990s have the fury and energy of the agrarian populists of the 1890s, who took over the Democratic Party).

There are those who hope for a new third party of the radical middle: Mr. Gordon and Benjamin Black make a persuasive case in a new book, "The Politics of American Discontent."

Certainly, Mr. Perot proved a coherent constituency exists there. But he also proved the cosmic point: that in this new era, with endless opportunities to get on the air and make waves, party politics may be anachronistic.

"It's been true of almost every other area in American life," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "Big structures have broken down. Our grandparents thought there were only three flavors of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. We demand more choices."

In Virginia this year, plain vanilla is running against three custom-made, postmodern flavors. Chuck Robb staggers along with the stunned, empty look of a man blindsided by life.

His dreams of national prominence have been shattered by personal problems and political disasters (perhaps Bill Clinton can relate). And yet, guess what? He's ahead. In the latest poll, he leads Mr. North by 10 points.

Of course, it may not last. Then again: in a world of stunts, vanilla can be a very clever marketing ploy.

Joe Klein is a columnist for Newsweek.

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