Venerable Busby sees '84 free, at last, of Civil War

Horace W. Busby takes the long view of American politics. But even a veteran like Mr. Busby got excited over the 1984 elections. ''This is the first presidential election since 1860 in which the Civil War has not been, in some way, to some degree, an influence,'' Busby says. ''As recently as 1976, it was more Appomattox than Watergate that led to the Southern states going against their conservative trend and going with Jimmy Carter.''

The waning of the rebel cry in Dixie has been grim news for the Democratic Party in elections for the White House, says Busby. It has shattered the party's base, and may have put the presidency into the hands of conservatives for years to come.

Busby, now in his fourth decade in Washington, is one of those rare folks here who can see beyond the latest speeches, press releases, and election returns. People often turn to him when they are puzzled by the cross currents of American politics.

As a former right-hand man to Lyndon B. Johnson, Busby has studied government from inside and outside. During Mr. Johnson's term in the White House, he served as special assistant to the president and secretary to the Cabinet.

Today, Busby publishes studies of politics known as ''The Busby Papers.'' They are closely followed in business and government.

It's tempting to ask this man, who still speaks with his native Texas drawl, what President Johnson might have to say about the Democrats in this year's race for the presidency.

''He would say, 'I told you so. You let big labor take over and this is what happens,' '' he suggests.

Of course, he adds, the labor unions ''fought Johnson, tried to defeat him, tried to keep him off the Democratic ticket. Johnson wasn't mad at labor. But he just told them, 'The people of America aren't going to let you take over.' ''

Busby was interviewed before Tuesday's votes were counted, so the outcome wasn't certain. But the outlook for Walter F. Mondale and the Democrats clearly was dim as we talked.

If the final results are as bad for the Democrats as nearly everyone expected , says Busby, it will signal that something very fundamental is happening to politics in the United States. What we are witnessing, he suggests, is the long-awaited conservative response to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal policies of the 1930s. We may be witnessing the most important sea change in American politics in decades. Busby says:

''Roosevelt - the New Deal - was all about centralization. Roosevelt was centralizing government powers. ... That whole period created something that had never existed before, an activist national government. It created an entire new set of issues.''

Today the response to Roosevelt is taking shape.

''This country and its people are set against ... governmental centralization ,'' says Busby. ''I don't think there's another country on earth where, in the regions of the country, the people speak as ill of Washington and the federal government as they do here in the United States. Some foreign nationals who have traveled to distant regions of the US think that the way Americans talk about Washington is almost treasonable.''

This strong feeling against centralization, and in favor of local control, is what the current movement toward conservatism is all about, he suggests.

''I think it has taken all this time, from the '30s to the '80s, for people finally to get this central government back under what they conceive to be their control.''

One major reason that this is now becoming clear, says Busby, is that political power is moving South and West, where antipathy to Washington is greatest. This is what made the Democratic Party's decision to pick both parts of its ticket in 1984 from the North such an anomaly. It will probably never happen again, he predicts.

What happened to the Democrats this year, he says, is that they got captured by the labor unions. And the unions are out of touch with what's happening in America.

''The nominee of the Democratic Party, the platform of the party, all of that , was selected this year and dictated predominantly within a 12-block square in downtown Washington, the center of which ... is one block just down this street (the headquarters of the AFL-CIO).

''These people are not asking people what the issues are. They are telling the people.''

One of the sharpest contrasts during this campaign took place during the second presidential debate in Kansas City, Mo., Busby says. It painted in stark terms the differences between Ronald Reagan and what he represents, and Mr. Mondale.

''Reagan mentioned that our future foreign policy can no longer be concerned primarily with Europe. We have to look to the rim of the Pacific,'' which is booming with low-cost labor and new, highly productive industry.

''Meanwhile, here is a candidate chosen by labor, on the Democratic side, who essentially has to deny the importance of the Pacific Rim because labor wants to hear nothing about it.

''The President can talk about 'star wars' and technology and all that, but the Democratic candidate has to be the enemy of robots, computers, and all the other electronic labor-saving equipment and systems that will be the salvation of the future.

''So you have a Democratic Party, which in times past used to be the party that had the high intellectual content, receptivity to new ideas, and the long view of the future. Today, instead, the party is being held back by a certain political primitivism because some of its core interests (are) effectively political Luddites. They are fighting against the coming age.

''I find this a very significant demarcation, because the party that is going to lead America is the party that is going to be receptive to the rather remarkable future that we are now beginning to see.''

Busby offered these other thoughts:

Geraldine Ferraro. As the campaign came to an end, it appeared that Ms. Ferraro might have been costing Mr. Mondale votes. This seems to tell us two things about putting a woman on the ticket, Busby says.

First, voters seemed to realize that they were possibly voting for two presidents, not a president and vice-president. ''Talking to people during the last week or 10 days, it became clear that the prospect of Ms. Ferraro as commander in chief was fully unacceptable.'' This was especially notable among some women voters, Busby says.

Second, it appears that a rule of American politics is that to overcome a taboo - such as ''no Roman Catholic president'' - a candidate must do it the hard way. Thus, a woman in 1988 or thereafter will probably have to enter the primaries and fight for a spot on the ticket just like a man. If a woman does that, she ''would be very popular,'' Busby says.

Campaign methods. The old idea of flying from city to city for speech after speech may be outdated. Television, telephones, radio, and other modern methods make it unnecessary. The race in 1984 could be the last time we see it done the old-fashioned way.

The 1988 presidential race. It's too early to say very much. But population trends will make it tough to elect such likely Northern candidates as Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. ''It's very questionable whether a governor of New York is very much of a salable property ... west of the Hudson,'' Busby says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.