Issues du Jour Feed Political Changes in Washington

TTHERE'S so much talk now about a sea change, a long-term national shift to the Republican Party. Perhaps. But my thoughts go back to 1964 when the end of the GOP as an effective force in America was being widely predicted. Lyndon Johnson had wiped out Barry Goldwater in the presidential race and Democrats had pretty much taken over the country.

So it was that the sages of that period were declaring with certainty that the Democrats would control the political scene for the next generation.

But four years later Richard Nixon, a Republican who had been counted out more than once, had made a surprising comeback. And so had the Republicans.

This is not to say that the Republicans may not now have taken over for a long time to come. But the electorate can change directions in a hurry. Issues usually drive the change. Voters in 1964 had tired of the ``no-win'' war in Vietnam. So they turned to Richard Nixon, who was holding out an end-the-war promise that he later took a long time to fulfill.

Back in the 1920s the Republicans were the ``ins'' and seemed likely to stay there for a long, long time. But then came the Great Depression and wham! it was a new day for the Democrats, one that would last for 20 years.

There's also been much post-election talk of a polarization among the voters. Exit polls show that blacks voted overwhelmingly for Democrats while among whites, 62 percent of men and 54 percent of women voted Republican.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, blacks have found their home in the Democratic Party.

But the election also saw some variants from this. One was the 25 black congressional candidates fielded by the Republicans. Two won - and they both were running in heavily white Southern districts.

In another interesting twist, more than 50 percent of blacks in California voted for Proposition 187 - the immigrant-restricting move described in advance as something all blacks opposed. Oddly, too, one-third of Hispanics voted for it. They, like the blacks, were thinking about their jobs, I am sure.

Once again the press is expressing despair over the low turnout at the polls, renewing the argument that our democracy simply isn't functioning properly if Americans don't get out and vote.

I see it differently. American voters are quite attentive to the issues that affect them. The nonvote these days is of itself often a statement. For example, the president couldn't get blacks out to vote, try as he did. Why? Because a lot of blacks didn't feel Clinton had delivered to them on his promises. They voted by sitting on their hands.

Indeed, the relatively low turnout among all Democrats was clearly a vote of a kind. Many Democratic conservatives were unhappy with Clinton because, as they saw it, he ran as a conservative and then governed as a liberal.

Many whites as well as blacks simply decided they would stay home rather than vote in a way that could be interpreted as support for a president who, in their estimation, had let them down.

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