In a campaign without issues, it's easy for voters to assail 'Clinton and them'

November 07, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Sun Staff Correspondent

GLADE CREEK, N.C. -- At a Republican candidates night here last week an elderly woman rose to make a point. Her voice shaking with emotion, she told her neighbors, "Ever since they took the prayer out of the schools, they've been going downhill."

A young farmer told a visitor: "She's right, you know. Those people in Washington, Clinton and them, just keep telling us what we've got to do and we keep going down in Washington."

But there is neither much logic nor cohesiveness in the case voters are making against the incumbents they threaten in such large numbers. President Clinton can hardly be blamed for the absence of prayer in the schools, and his administration does have some successes in its first two years.

The campaign of 1994 has been a pudding without a theme other than often mindless hostility toward those in power and antipathy toward Washington.

Past overhauls

In other postwar elections in which a radical change in Congress was made, there were some specific factors that could be identified. In 1966, for example, the Democrats lost 47 seats in the House of Representatives because the economy had gone sour and because there were a large number of shaky Democratic freshmen swept in with the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In 1974, when the Democrats gained 49 House seats, there was no mystery about the reason. Democrats ran as reformers against a party smeared by the Watergate scandal in an election just three months after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

In 1980, the Democrats lost 34 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate when Republican challenger Ronald Reagan convinced the electorate that he could cut taxes and increase defense spending and stillbalance the federal budget.

In 1982, when Democrats won back 26 of those House seats, the reason was clearly the weakness of the economy.

By contrast, there are no such conventional issues -- recession or scandal -- in play in 1994. Instead, there is only the pervasive distrust of Washington and incumbents.

Indeed, it is so pervasive that Mr. Clinton and the ruling Democrats get little or no credit for the improvements in the economy under his stewardship. On the contrary, opinion polls show that 60 percent or more of the voters believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction" -- the reverse of the normal pattern when the economy is improving.

The only familiar element in this equation of discontent may be one common with 1980 -- the total collapse of Southern support for a Southern president after his first two years in office in which he appeared to have failed to meet expectations for change.

The distrust is not limited to elected officials in Washington. In the tight Maryland contest between Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Parris N. Glendening, a Republican is making a serious challenge for the governorship for the first time in a generation -- against a nonincumbent Democrat with an electorate heavily made up of federal workers for whom Washington could hardly be called threatening or distant.

With the absence of any real issues on which candidates could be more defined, campaigns across the nation have become negative and mindless. In races in one state after another, the story is the same: Candidates taking cheap shots at their opponents, then accusing their opponents of mud-slinging.

Even the "issues" being used are the same. Republicans routinely accuse every congressional Democrat of having cast "the decisive vote" for "the biggest tax increase in history" -- meaning the 1993 budget agreement -- and plotting even higher taxes. And Democrats are replying by accusing Republican after Republican of scheming to reduce Social Security benefits.

Looking for openings

The Democrats thought they had found an opening in the "Contract With America" that Republican House candidates signed, linking reduction of Social Security benefits to that program. But surveys show that only one voter in five has even a foggy idea about the contract.

Similarly, the Republicans have tried to exploit a memo written by White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin as proof of the tax charge. But even fewer voters are aware of that document.

Neither accusation can stand up to close examination but each has some sting. And consultants and candidates in almost every campaign have reached the conclusion, based on hard experience, that "going negative" is the only way to succeed.

The result is another reversal of conventional wisdom in politics. Candidates with "negatives" in polls as high as 40 percent are still holding leads because a similar share of the electorate disapproves of their opponents. The rule of thumb in the past has been that a disapproval rating as high as 35 percent would put any candidate in jeopardy.

To some degree, this may be a product of the context. This campaign is being conducted in a far different media world than those of 1966 or 1974 or even 1980.

Television has grown in influence even as it has shortened the sound bites it broadcasts, making it easier for voters to believe that they are getting "information" from those negative commercials. And for those voters who listen to talk radio, the notion that all the incumbents are corrupt or venal isn't hard to accept.

So it probably isn't surprising that here in this small community in the mountains of western North Carolina it makes sense to blame "Clinton and them" for what's wrong with the schools and everything else. It is a very different year.

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