PHILADELPHIA — Wishful thinking has characterized liberals for over a decade now: Signs are constantly materializing that the tide has turned and a new era of liberalism is dawning. The 1990 elections are being touted as the latest indicator. I respectfully dissent.
It is dubious, to begin with, whether there ever was a halcyon day in which everyone was liberal. The supposedly idealistic baby boomers, who came of age in the '60s, may not have been so idealistic at all--it is not as if draft-age students didn't have a personal interest in seeing the Vietnam War terminated. And while joining the civil-rights movement might have been inspiring at the time, when civil rights and integration moved north, young, white liberals headed for the suburbs like everyone else.
In short, the premise that there is some golden liberal age whose return we are awaiting is seriously flawed. Nonetheless, it gave many liberals sustenance through the long drought of the '70s: Odd-numbered decades, the adage went, were conservative, while even-numbered decades were liberal. Well, that didn't pan out, so many discovered a new iron-clad rule of U.S. history: Progressive decades come every 30 years (Let's see--1930, 1960, that means . . . ). It's thus tempting to see the 1990 elections as the harbinger of this messianic age.
The evidence is that Democrats retained or widened their smashing edge in governorships and state legislatures, gaining the upper hand in congressional redistricting. But this was true in 1970--Richard M. Nixon's first midterm test--as well; and Democrats didn't exactly suffer in the '80s redistricting.
Another supposed sign of the beating conservatives took was that Democrats enlarged their congressional majorities. That's true--but by less than the historical average, despite a historically unparalleled freefall in the Republican President's ratings--which also has nothing to do with growing liberal sentiment.
The final indicator of the allegedly bad news for conservatives is that such troglodytes as Clayton W. Williams Jr. in Texas and John R. Silber in Massachusetts were defeated, while liberal darlings Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey were reelected.
Of course, Williams and Silber both went out of their way to shoot themselves in the foot, and neither's conqueror--Anne Richards in Texas, and Republican William Weld in Massachusetts--ran as liberals. In fact, Richards, who really is one of the few progressives in Texas, ran away from such an image; while the quintessential Texas progressive, Agriculture Commissioner Jim A. Hightower, shockingly lost .
As for Cuomo and Bradley, both barely won majorities against non-opponents. Then, of course, there's Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, whose race-baiting reelection can hardly be viewed as a liberal victory. The news for liberals gets worse from there.
Voters strongly rejected environmental appeals in California and New York. Overall, pro-abortion-rights candidates nationally failed to profit from that issue. In short, the environment and abortion--two issues most liberal pundits thought would be The Issues of the '90s, catapulting us to victory--are not proving successful hot buttons. The Republicans have proved, however, that race--at least, in the guise of quotas, a more polite way to raise the issue than the heavy-handed Willie Horton approach--still works for them .
All these other issues are electoral sideshow, however: Voters want to hear what Democrats have to say about the economy and jobs. The reality is that doing anything meaningful on that front will require both reducing the deficit--meaning some tax increases, and cuts in popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare--and some investment in the young and the poor, through education and job training, so that there is some reason for jobs and money to be in America instead of Germany or Japan
That is what America needs. It is what Democrats are inclined to say. And if they do, they will lose.
Ask Bradley or Gov. James J. Florio in New Jersey; ask defeated Gov. James J. Blanchard in Michigan. Ask George Bush and the majority of congressmen what message they've gotten from the election, and the answer will be: No more taxes. There is no sign whatsoever that voters will pay for increased spending on social programs of any variety to help the economically disadvantaged, and a lot of evidence that such efforts are viewed as benefiting blacks at whites' expense--not a particularly popular concept.