California politics and the brighter public mood

THE other morning Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California was asked this question: ``A new Gallup poll shows a record number of Americans expressing satisfaction with the way things are going in the nation and in their personal lives. What does this mean in the political contests this fall?'' ``It means,'' said the senator with a smile, ``that I win. Incumbents will benefit from this feeling, and I'm an incumbent.''

This feeling of public well-being is evident anyplace a reporter goes these days, except in farm areas and pockets of high unemployment.

Recently, while traveling with Mr. Cranston as he campaigned in California, I found that a rosy view prevailed.

But will it reelect Cranston, the vigorous oldster, against Congressman Ed Zschau, a high-tech millionaire from Silicon Valley who is a number of years Cranston's junior? Republican strategists, in Washington as well as in California, say, in fact, that Cranston is probably the most vulnerable of all the Democratic senators up for election.

I saw Cranston receive strong, enthusiastic responses from attendees at the United Automobile Workers convention; at a get-together with senior citizens at a Jewish center; and elsewhere. But the senator, after nearly 18 years of holding this seat in Washington, does not simply draw the votes of the liberals. He also has generated support in high places of California business and industry, including backing from influential Republicans.

But as Cranston concedes, his Republican opponent will be charging him with absenteeism during the Cranston presidential campaign of 1984; with being a ``spender''; and with being wrong in his advocacy of a nuclear freeze. Nonetheless the senator seems confident that his record of achievement in shaping legislation and his role as a central figure in the Senate will give him another six-year term.

Political observers in California call the Cranston-Zschau race ``extremely close.'' So it would seem that if Cranston is to win, he must count on this upbeat public mood to give him the edge.

Gallup began this satisfaction poll only seven years ago. But shortly after it started these measurements, in August of 1979, the polling found that only 12 percent were saying they were satisfied (84 percent dissatisfied) with the way things were going in the US. Now 66 percent are satisfied.

The rise in the feeling of personal well-being has not been that large. But when asked in March, 84 percent indicated they were satisfied with the way things were going in their personal lives -- 15 percent said they were dissatisfied. The ``low'' in personal satisfaction came in July of 1979 -- with 73 percent saying they were satisfied with their lot and 23 percent saying they were not.

This polling, confirming what reporters are finding in their probing of the nation's grass roots, is significant. It indicates the political backdrop against which the contests this fall and in 1988 will be waged. But by and large, it seems likely that what Gallup has labeled ``the era of good feeling'' will cause voters to leave Congress pretty much where it is today -- with the Republicans slightly in the lead in the Senate and with the Democrats staying about the same (with a pickup of relatively few seats) in the House.

For 1988 the poll would seem to point to a continuation of Republican control of the White House. The incumbent, Ronald Reagan, will, of course, be gone. But his successor, as a candidate, will have to benefit greatly from a public mood that feels good about itself and about the way the nation is being run.

Gallup's breakdown of whites' and blacks' attitudes in its polling is significant. In the latest survey 68 percent of whites, but only 44 percent of blacks, say they are satisfied with the way things are going; 86 percent of whites, compared with 64 percent of blacks, express satisfaction with their personal lives.

An easy reading of these findings could lead to the conclusion that blacks are not sharing equally with whites in the benefits accruing from living in this country, a conclusion evident to any ghetto-watcher, given the high level of unemployment among blacks and the disproportionate number of poor people who are blacks.

But when 44 percent of the blacks say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the US, it could say something else: that a lot of blacks are benefiting from the low inflation, the low interest rates, and the improved economy now prevailing and, at least by implication, are giving credit to the Republican President for whom very few of them voted, either in 1980 or 1984.

Also, when 64 percent say that things are going well in their personal lives, that's a lot of blacks, indicating the large number of those among that minority group who have now probably moved into the middle-income brackets.

The Gallup breakdown of statistics does not refer to older Americans. But many publications tell of a growing optimism among older citizens -- much of it based on greater life expectancy.

Also, the emerging public attitude toward senior citizens has done much to encourage them. Older people are seen retaining vigor, activity, creativity, and hope. A new classification for the increased number of people in this upper-age category is now being widely accepted: the ``young-old.''

So it seems likely that rosier views from the oldsters, who make up a large segment of our society, has helped shape a finding of a brightening public mood.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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