Move to the center

NATIONAL elections do not repeat themselves. At their best, a public's affairs are progressive. Like an individual's or a family's, they evolve. So 1984's election should not be expected to rehash 1980's.

For one thing, the electorate has changed.

It is more centrist.

Remember the assessment that the United States public was splitting into conservative-liberal camps? Consider the Roper Organization's latest surveys on how Americans view their personal political leanings, compared with the start of the Reagan administration and 10 years ago:

Jan. '84 Jan. '81 Jan. '74 Conservative 41% 47% 42% Mid-road 34% 29% 29% Liberal 20% 19% 22%

A fair reading of the numbers is that, in the past three years, the public has eased a little away from a conservative identification toward the middle of the road.

This could partly be due to the feeling that a needed conservative balance has already been struck, and partly out of diminished enthusiasm for the administration's ideas and approach. Either way, the 1984 electorate does not look all that different from the 1974 electorate, except for the extremes having yielded somewhat.

On three other 1980 issues - getting government off the back of business, the need to recharge American military might, and curbing welfare expenditures - the pattern likewise shows less political passion today.

The percentage of Americans who would like less regulation of business has fallen from 58 percent in January 1981 to 43 percent now.

The proportion of the public who want military spending ''greatly increased'' has slipped substantially since Mr. Reagan took office. Reagan won election when the appetite for greater defense spending was at its peak; now a majority think defense outlays are too great or about right:

Dec. '83 Dec. '81 Dec. '80 Too much 32% 27% 12% Too little 21% 29% 56% About right 40% 38% 24%

On welfare, the proportion who think too much is spent has declined from 69 percent to 43 percent; the number who think too little is spent has increased from 13 percent to 20 percent.

With a return to more stable earnings for many Americans at home, to what degree will US involvement in affairs abroad guide their 1984 decisions? To what degree will the Reagan administration be held accountable for the rift in US-Soviet relations? What qualities of character and leadership are the Democrats showing in their nomination campaign, which has so far been marred by bickering?

Will the fairness issue, spreading the costs and benefits of economic policy, work to the Democrats' advantage?

The few decisive 1984 issues are not yet determined. But it's clear they won't be identical to 1980's.

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