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The Dr. Feelgoods Triumph at the Polls : Voters Spurn Candor, Prefer Happy-Talk Campaigns

February 18, 1988|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, is the author of the coming book "House and Senate"(W. W. Norton).

A story is told of what former Vice President Walter F. Mondale said while he watched President Jimmy Carter's stern televised public address about how important it was to conserve energy. Mondale is said to have turned to an aide and remarked, "There you see the happiest man in America." Puzzled by Mondale's remark, an aide inquired why Carter should be so happy. Mondale is said to have responded, "Because the thing he likes more than anything else is giving the American people bad news."

Whatever insight that story provides about Carter's "hair shirt" approach to the presidency, it also serves as a more general comment on the ingredients of success and failure in American political campaigns. The public balks at accepting reality. Successful candidates have always subscribed to the Mary Poppins theory of political campaigning: Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Recently, however, the spoons of the most promising of the hopefuls have contained mostly sugar. No politician ever finished last by pandering to the denial mechanisms of the American voter.

It is the lesson of Bruce Babbitt, Jimmy Carter's Administration and Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984, but its traces go back as far as the up-and-down career of Grover Cleveland, of whom it was said that "he was loved for the enemies he made." Still, good politics is generally winning politics; hard realities are castor oil, and the people usually gag on it. The Dr. Feelgoods of both parties had a field day in New Hampshire on Tuesday; the Mr. Hair Shirts have proved once again that they are as welcome as globe salesmen at a meeting of the Flat-Earth Society.

The Republicans can be expected to conduct a happy-talk campaign. Their approach, collectively, has been a combination of pastoral counseling and psychotherapeutic ego massage. They come off sounding like the French pop psychologist of the 1920s, Dr. Etienne Coue, whose mantra was: "Everyday in every way I'm getting better and better"--and why not? Despite ominous underlying problems, the economy buzzes along, so the GOP hopefuls style themselves after that master of inspirational uplift, President Reagan, while crossing their fingers that if they win the economic ax won't fall on their watch. They can be forgiven the almost ritualistic invocation of his name and the Kremlinesque rhetoric about how all good Republicans must follow Reagan's precepts.

It is less easy to forgive the Democrats who give us a kind of goulash Reaganomics. The Democratic Feelgoods, unlike their GOP counterparts, are bold and impassioned in their diagnoses of our ailments (deficits, problems with our trading partners, lack of educational opportunity or the plight of the homeless), but their remedies are so much snake oil. The most outrageous nostrums typically come from those with the best chance of securing the nomination. From Michael S. Dukakis, the winner in New Hampshire, we get the Grace Commission report in easy-to-swallow coated Democratic caplets. The deficit will be closed by attacking the pestilential trio of waste, fraud and abuse. That, and the addition of a legion of certified public accountants assigned to the Internal Revenue Service, will mop up tax cheats in the manner of Kaopectate attacking intestinal bacteria.

Dr. Richard A. Gephardt's pick-me-up is tariff therapy that is based on the dubious homeopathic principle that you cure protectionism with more protectionism. Gephardt's magic-bullet cure for the federal deficit is the oil-import fee, which will undoubtedly help him in Texas but for much of the East Coast is the economic equivalent of leeching and cupping.

Paul Simon, who lagged in third place in New Hampshire, urges on his patients the quack elixir of the balanced-budget amendment while at the same time making extravagant vows to upgrade education and medical care. Simon's approach evokes memories of Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn's admonition to his employees: Spare no expense to make everything as economical as possible.

Why do political candidates persist in this morally dubious practice that insults the intelligence of voters by reassuring them that complicated and intractable problems can either be ignored or simply dosed with palliatives? After all, would a critically ill patient choose a physician for his bedside manner or for his therapeutic skill? History demonstrates that unctuous and even wrongheaded reassurance wins out consistently over unwavering bluntness.

Franklin D. Roosevelt exceeded Republican President Herbert Hoover in 1932 in balanced-budget rhetoric, promising not only a 25% reduction in federal spending but retaliatory tariffs as well. F.D.R., to his credit, was probably sincere about his support for these policies that would have proved disastrous had he actually carried them out.

With the current crop of Democratic hopefuls, there is more than a hint of opportunism and even disingenuousness. But since the Democrats remain long shots in the general election, they will probably never be called on to test their specious therapies. If the economy takes sick between now and November, the voters will turn to them anyway because in a two-party system you always know where to go for a second opinion.

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