WASHINGTON — I MISS THE DAYS when I was almost continually on the move around the country and, therefore, able to keep my finger on the mood of the nation.
Now I depend on reading a lot, watching the American scene for long hours on TV (C-SPAN is most helpful to the armchair observer), and then chatting on the phone with my buddies in the media who are still charging around and feeling the voters' pulse.
So with these contacts as my references, I was not surprised the other day when I saw an in-depth study of the national political scene which found that there were no big domestic issues in the coming national elections. I already had the impression that while the politicians were shrilly telling Americans they should be exercised over taxes, education, energy, and the environment, the voters in general were not showing a lot of interest.
Indeed, my informants tell me that Americans for the most part are content to go about their daily work quietly and leave politics to the politicians. Certainly, those people who have lost jobs want help and are responsive to the candidate who can offer it. But, I find, there is a general mood of contentment around the country. The lift from the recession though slow has undergirded this contentment. And along with this relative satisfaction with the economy is a public optimism that it will improve.
Of course, there is one very big foreign affairs issue: the war on terrorism. The contented American is intensely interested in the war, fully supportive of America's effort to wipe out terrorism. Reporters who talk to voters from coast to coast find no decline in the public's feeling, following Sept. 11, that, more important than anything else, terrorism must be rooted out.
Sept. 11 changed the thinking of Americans everywhere. They now realize how their lives are threatened by the terrorist who could somehow slip in and plant a dirty atomic bomb, poison their water, put bacteria in their mail, or come up with some other way to kill them.
So along with this quiet public contentment is a quiet patience with this potentially long global war, much of which is being carried on beneath the surface.
Yes, I'm well aware that there are a few polls now that profess to show that the voters are becoming more interested in domestic issues as the election nears. But I have yet to find one poll that shows the intensity of this new interest. I just don't believe the intensity is there.
How does this mood of contentment on domestic issues affect the November elections? It's a rule of thumb among political observers that a contented electorate should help incumbents of both parties leading to a relative status quo in the election results.
But there is one big imponderable: the economy. Sure, it's improving. But what if it should take a sudden drop? We saw what such an unforeseen occurrence did to the senior President Bush in his loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. He was riding high in the polls during the Gulf War. Then the war ended and the economy slumped. And so did Mr. Bush.
So a sudden economic decline could send a lot of economically distressed voters to the polls, people who might not otherwise have voted.
That would throw all forecasts of a status quo result to the winds. Could it happen? Of course. For example, if the Arab countries get angry enough to shut off their oil to the US well then all predictions are off on the elections. Long gas lines would do to George W. Bush and the Republicans what they did to Jimmy Carter and the Democrats when he was president.