The 1992 Race: Beyond Willie Horton

By , David Yepsen is the chief political writer for the Des Moines Register and a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

EVENTS in Europe will alter US politics in 1992. At a minimum, those changes will improve the quality of debate during the campaign. For the party that is willing to take some risks, the changes could prove beneficial at the polls. It all pivots around the peace dividend issue, the question of how much the US can save in military spending as a result of the improved climate in Europe.

What is the potential for cuts? Can we end the domestic budget deficit in a few years? What shall we do with any savings? How can they be used to improve US competitiveness? What is the role of the United States in the world now that the Soviet Union is no longer such a bogeyman? Should Germany be reunited? Can a united Germany be trusted? How should we respond to the increased competitiveness from ``Europe 1992''? Should some of the military savings be used to improve infrastructure and education to make the US more competitive?

The list goes on. Even top scholars and policymakers can't answer them.

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Another new ingredient will be the regional debates these questions will provoke between defense-rich constituencies in the US and defense-poor constituencies. Those debates have nothing to do with Europe and everything to do with local politics. But with a diminishing threat from communist nations, the hand of defense cutters has been strengthened, at least in the near term.

The debate goes beyond the presidency. Democrats have been wandering in the woods for a number of elections, but they face a special challenge in 1992. For the first time in 20 years, a presidential election will come on top of congressional races in newly apportioned districts.

Some predictions have said as many as 18 to 20 congressional districts could move from the Northeast and the Midwest to Southern and Western states. In other words, from areas where Democrats are competitive to areas where they're not. That will also mean moving congressional districts (and electoral votes) from defense-poor regions to defense-rich regions.

In addition, reapportionment could limit, a bit, some of the advantages of incumbency for other Democrats. Even incumbents, in many cases, will be facing new voters in newly drawn districts.

If George Bush is reelected in a landslide, it is only natural that some Democratic congressional candidates will be in difficulty. A Bush blowout is quite possible. The president's poll ratings are strong. Even in Iowa, where Bush finished a poor third in the 1988 caucuses and lost the state to Michael Dukakis in November, a recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed Bush with a 74 percent job approval rating.

In some ways, Bush's popularity could become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Democrats if the party's strongest candidates decide the president can't be defeated and decide to pass on the race. Bush could be assured of a magna cum laude degree from a more Republican electoral college.

But the European events also pose a problem for Bush and his party. Could they become a victim of their own successes? In recent presidential elections, a GOP trump card has been the perception that they are stronger on national defense, which is something of a threshold issue for many voters: a president, above all, has to show an ability to defend the country.

As the Soviet threat diminishes, will defense and big military budgets be as appealing to voters?

Probably not, particularly in the face of large federal deficits and pressing human needs at home. Americans could turn inward and want to do something about domestic needs as well as the deficit. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party they turned to for help with domestic problems.

But the military savings just might enable Bush to keep the economy rolling and his poll ratings high. He might not need the defense issue.

Making new, meaningful whacks at the budget deficit is just the sort of tonic that Wall Street would respond to. Lower deficits mean lower interest rates which, in turn, will mean more jobs and investment. Even if the dollar savings from the military aren't that high, the nation's investors have received a significant psychological boost.

An era of good feelings could begin that would not make Democrats feel very good.

It goes beyond questions of military spending. Does the country turn inward even more as communist threats diminish? Does the economic challenge from Japan replace the military challenge of the Soviets as the leading US nemesis? Some polling evidence indicates it already has, and, unfortunately, those feelings carry strong racist overtones.

Will Japan-bashing be the new sound bite in US campaigns? Can candidates resist that and get to the real issues that cause our problems with Japan, namely, poor quality goods, a poor savings rate, and poor educational systems.

Lots of questions. Few answers. One thing is certain: The nation will have some new issues to debate in 1992. The experts are starting to grapple with them now. The elections of 1990 and the presidential election of 1992 will give American voters their first opportunity to speak on the matter.

It's bound to be better than the 1988 fare of Willie Horton, tank rides, and flag factories. We hope.

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