WASHINGTON — What's troubling about this year's midterm elections is not so much their negative campaigning--that's par for the course--but their negative institutional implications for the next two years. Ad hominem rhetoric is a familiar staple of American politics; overt failure to confront the country's major issues is less common.
The danger is twofold: To begin with, autumn's shallow campaigning isn't laying groundwork for an upcoming national policy debate, either in the 100th Congress convening in January or in the intensifying maneuvering for the 1988 presidential election. There's also cause to worry that the Nov. 4 races may yield a closely divided, even more politicized U.S. Senate that will complicate, not improve, national governance during Ronald Reagan's last two years.
Neither party is exactly elevating the national dialogue. Republicans, for their part, are no more interested in staging a great debate in 1986 than they were back in 1984 when Reagan preferred to voice feel-good themes in pursuit of a 50-state personal landslide. Preserving power is the name of this November's game, and to keep control of the Senate, now Republican by 53 to 47, the GOP has to reelect a number of second-echelon freshman legislators, 1980's surprise riders on Reagan's unexpectedly long coattails.
In strategic terms, enormous amounts of money have been marshaled to finance campaigns placing heavy emphasis on finely spun cocoons of protective advertising. Senators whom 21st-Century history books will pass over without a thought are being packaged for home-state viewing audiences as reincarnations of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Or, for that matter, as devoted protectors of groups and interests they've sometimes been voting against. In politics, money talks, often most effectively through the lips of advertising agencies.
Of course, it takes two sides to trivialize. If the Republicans seem more interested in parading behind their money and technology than in joining a real dialogue on the national future, the Democrats have their own shallowness. One has to wonder why they're pumping out so many personal attacks, given the national issues where they ought to be scoring points. The farm belt, after all, is in a depression. So are the energy states. American manufacturing is also at least in a recession, what with our record trade deficit transferring fulfillment of American consumer demand overseas. Then there's the Reagan Administration's top congressional priority of the last two years, revenue-neutral tax reform, which was greeted by the public with a yawn.
And all the while, the U.S. economy remains in the grip of $200-billion budget deficits. You'd think the Democrats would be getting ready for a turkey-shoot.
Not so. In fact, it's still not clear whether this political hunting season is going to see the Democrats as shotgun-bearing stalkers or as continuing targets. Since the 1984 election, when they finally came to grips with a decade and a half of well-deserved national-level voter rejection, the Democrats have been going through an identity crisis. Moderation now often goes hand-in-hand with equivocation. Congressional Democrats, in particular, have been a befuddled and inhibited opposition. Is the current federal farm program a disaster? Well, Democrats helped Republicans put it together. Was tax reform a misplaced priority in light of the trade and budget deficit crises? Democrats helped on that, too. None of it could have happened, after all, without House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. Did the Gramm-Rudman budget deficit reduction mechanism turn out to be a joke? Senate Democrats helped write the comic book.
I don't think it's a coincidence, either. Reagan-era Democratic fecklessness has precedents. Just as we've seen recent eras when uncertain Republicans tried to "me-too" the Democrats, Democrats conspicuously me-tooed Republicans in several pivotal pro-business and unabashedly capitalist periods in U.S. history.
During the late 19th Century, and then again during the 1920s, Republicans dominated U.S. politics, presiding over economies that brought boom times to many big metropolitan areas but produced hard times in the agricultural and extractive hinterland, a pattern apparent today. But then as now, the Democratic Party was unable to develop anything resembling a united policy. On the national level, they pretty much echoed the Republicans and failed to provide a rallying point for disgruntled regions or voters. The siren song of Horatio Alger entrepreneurialism and big contributors was too great.