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THE REAL LOSERS : Deciphering The Election : Democrats: Will 'fairness' work in '92?

November 11, 1990|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times

Next stop: Iowa.

With the midterm election now in the books, Democrats are poised to begin searching for their 1992 presidential nominee. Common de cency toward voters, activists and fund-raisers, alternately disgusted and exhausted by this year's struggle, will compel the Democratic hopefuls to wait a little while before setting out on the road that leads to the first contest in Iowa, 15 months from now.

But only a little while. "People won't be thinking about 1992," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, "at least for a couple of weeks."

Actually, many Democrats heard in this fall's rallying cry of tax fairness the opening of the 1992 campaign. And with economic anxiety and anger at Washington driving down George Bush's approval rating from its stratospheric height, optimistic Democrats believe the road back to the White House may be finally rising to meet them.

Maybe. But Tuesday's balloting produced less conclusive evidence for strategists contemplating the 1992 contest than puzzling crosscurrents. Rather than offering a clear map toward 1992, the 1990 campaign caught both parties in flux, and the electorate surprisingly cautious and hesitant.

After all the predictions of voter revolt, this election has turned out to be something like a thunderstorm that builds on the horizon--and never arrives.

Were voters fed up with incumbents? Polls left no doubt, and more members of the House lost than in recent campaigns; many more saw margins of victory decline. Still, some 96% of representatives seeking reelection won it, and just one senator was ousted. Seven senators lost their jobs four years ago when no one talked of voter outrage. And yet, voters in California and Colorado, following Oklahoma's lead, expressed unmistakable dissatisfaction by approving term limits for legislators.

These results have presented party strategists with the political equivalent of a Rorschach test: What you take out of them depends on what you bring in. Some Democrats worry that the party will take Tuesday's showing as a mandate to refight the Reagan years by launching a campaign of class warfare, and ignore the bright caution flags voters unfurled in several states. Conversely, some Republicans worry that the White House will read the relatively slight GOP losses as an affirmation of Bush's standing, and ignore the signs of real erosion.

For Bush and congressional Democrats, the choice for the coming year is the same: confrontation or compromise. For most of the past two years, both sides have sought compromise wherever possible. That vision produced the ill-fated back-room budget negotiations. When the budget deal blew up in October, the White House collapsed into splenetic disarray and Democrats found a populist voice that many liberals would have preferred all along.

During the chaotic rush to pass a budget last month, Democrats finally declared war on Bush--and not a moment too soon for many party strategists. By demanding the wealthy get the stiffest bill for deficit reduction--while Bush insisted on a capital-gains tax cut and his chief of staff stalked out of negotiations to protest a proposed surtax on millionaires--Democrats succeeded beyond their wildest imagination in again painting the GOP as the party of privilege.

From coast to coast, Democrats picked up the fairness cry in the closing days of this election, and many party leaders expect it to be a central note in the 1992 campaign.

After two decades in the wilderness, will fairness finally rescue the Democrats? The theme could offer Democrats opportunities for important gains over the next two years--if they grasp them. It's worth remembering that House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and the rest of the Democratic leaders braying so loudly about fairness over the past three weeks were prepared to push through Congress the original, regressive budget compromise until House conservatives revolted and unraveled the deal.

Democratic analysts are already mulling alternatives for advancing the fairness argument. One way would be to reintroduce the surtax on millionaires that Bush fought so fiercely. Another would be to revive proposals to cut Social Security taxes, which hit lower- and middle-income families more heavily than the rich. "That is the next stage of the fairness argument, to move to a tax cut for working people," says Robert J. Shapiro, vice president for economic policy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

But history counsels caution about building a presidential campaign around fairness--and so do Tuesday's results.

History first. In the 1982 mid-term election, Democrats running against the inequities of the Reagan Administration picked up 26 House seats and concluded that a fairness message would oust Ronald Reagan in 1984. Walter F. Mondale delivered the message--and carried one state.

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