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Democrats Still Wait for 'Farm Revolt'

October 19, 1986|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics and the White House for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Where's the farm revolt? For months, Democratic political strategists have been waiting for signs that the nation's hard-pressed farmers were ready to rise up and strike down Republican candidates across the farm belt. Two weeks from election day, they're still waiting.

Only in a handful of races is the farmers' distress creating serious difficulties for Republicans. The Democrats' best chance for major farm state gains are in North and South Dakota, where challengers Kent Conrad and Rep. Tom A. Daschle, respectively, are locked in tight races against Republican Sens. Mark Andrews and James Abdnor.

But five other farm-state Republican senators are heading toward solid reelection victories. Republican Gov. Terry E. Branstad leads in his bid for a second term in Iowa, the epicenter of the farm crisis. The only farm-state governor trailing in the polls is Anthony S. Earl of Wisconsin, a Democrat, and his problem is high taxes, not low prices. In the 10 congressional districts with the highest concentration of farmers, six GOP representatives are running for reelection. Today all are leading. In only three of those six races do Democrats have even a long-shot hope of victory.

In the final days, some of these races might break the Democrats' way. But almost certainly not enough to change the pattern. So far the biggest story in the farm belt is the hush of what hasn't happened--a silence that speaks volumes about the disjointed politics of 1986.

The usual explanation for the farm-state Republicans' resilience is their success at distancing themselves from President Reagan's unpopular farm policies. It's true that many of them, led by Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, have skillfully demonstrated their independence.

But politicians always try to separate themselves from unpopular presidential policies. It's working here because deeper forces are involved.

Most important is the absence of an identifiable villain. Democrats have tried hard to pin the blame on the Administration. But, by and large, they haven't succeeded. The diffuse farm discontent hasn't focused on a single target, the way it locked onto Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson in 1958, when a farm-state revolt last seared the GOP. John R. Block, Reagan's first agriculture secretary, took a lot of criticism in the farm states, but he's long gone. The job's current occupant, Richard E. Lyng, is so low-profile he hasn't become an issue. And farmers don't fault Reagan himself.

Blame hasn't focused largely because farmers remain hopelessly divided over the cause of their problem. Few farm-state voters even blame the government, much less a particular political party. In a private Republican poll last year, Iowa residents blamed for the hard times, in descending order: overspending by farmers, high interest rates, low prices and inflation. Only 5% blamed government--the same number that blamed farmers' incompetence.

There's another reason Republicans have escaped blame: The Democrats have failed to present an alternative way out of the mess. Both parties were accomplices to the 1985 farm bill that drove up government price-support expenditures (to a record $26 billion this year) without easing the pressure on farmers. "They don't have any solutions," said Republican John McIntee, a state legislator involved in a tight race with Democrat David Nagle for an open House seat in Iowa. "You can talk gloom and doom all you want, but if you don't have any answers, you don't have any credibility."

No one understands that more than populist Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has offered the closest thing to a Democratic alternative. Harkin wants to scrap the existing price-support system if a majority of farmers agree in a referendum to instead impose severe, mandatory restrictions on production. Harkin expects the cutbacks to propel prices upward and slash government payments to farmers.

Liberal farm groups love the idea; traditional farming organizations hate it. Many economists consider the plan unworkable. More important, so do many Democrats. Harkin offered the same plan last year, and both chambers ground it up like so much meal. More than 80 Democrats voted against it in the House and a dozen Democratic defectors provided the margin of defeat in the Senate. Over time Harkin's approach may evolve into the Democratic alternative (one sign is that two presidential contenders, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, draped their names over Harkin's latest version of the bill) but right now Republicans are justified in saying the Democrats, as a party, have no plan of their own.

Though some Democrats are campaigning hard on Harkin's idea, most have been reduced to expressions of concern and compassion. All this empathy has bought the Democrats a huge lead in polls as the party best able to help farmers. But it hasn't been worth much in individual races, because many farmers don't seem to believe that either party can help.

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