United States politics, December 1986

MUCH is being written in these post-November election days about a possible revival of the Democratic Party. Much of what is being written on this subject is nonsense.

The serious question is not whether the Democrats can come up with interesting new leaders or new ideas, but what the last two Reagan years will do to the Republicans.

In trying to think through the political future of the United States there is one axiom that takes priority over all others.

The voters of the US seldom vote a party in to power. Almost always they vote the incumbents out of power.

As a general rule, an American political party can stay in office as long as a majority of the American people thinks it is getting better off economically. That party, whether it be Democratic or Republican, is going to be thrown out of office whenever the mass of voters think that the economic tide has turned against them.

The key issue in the 1980 election that put Jimmy Carter out and brought Ronald Reagan in was not the fate of the American hostages in Iran. It was the state of the American economy. Mr. Reagan's favorite and most successful line during the campaign was the question ``Are you better or worse off today than you were four years ago?'' The hostage crisis certainly did not help Mr. Carter. But inflation plus a sluggish economy (it was called stagflation) made his defeat all but inevitable.

My own personal association with American politics began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the election of 1932. I was assigned by the Monitor to cover Mr. Roosevelt, both during the campaign and then during the long wait from election day in November through the inauguration in March. I know from that experience that Roosevelt had only the vaguest idea while running for high office what he would be doing when he reached the White House. The New Deal and the welfare state did not exist in his pre-election-day mind. He was not elected for ideological reasons. He was not an ideological candidate.

Roosevelt won the 1932 election because the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent ``Great Depression'' had discredited the Republican Party in the minds of the American people. They didn't vote Roosevelt in. They voted Hoover and the Republicans out. The average voter was worse off (by a wide margin) in 1932 than he had been in 1928. The Democrats could have won in 1932 with almost any candidate, or any proclaimed policy. That is why Al Smith was so bitter over Roosevelt's taking the nomination in 1932. Al Smith could have won in 1932, easily.

Of course, other factors count. The fact that the Democrats had been in office for 20 years counted against Adlai Stevenson in 1952, and so did the fact that Dwight D. Eisenhower was both the winning general in the big war and also an extremely likable public figure. Everyone did ``like Ike.'' And there can be a situation where the economy might be a neutral factor, and then personality and purported policy could make a difference.

In looking ahead from 1986 to 1988, however, the most important unknown as the voters come up to election day is the state of the economy. If you can tell me that the economy will be booming one month before elction day, I can assure you that George Bush and the Republicans can win. But if you could know that the economy will be on an unmistakable downhill slide as the voters troop to the polls, then I can assure you that almost any Democrat will win.

Democratic Party chances are looking up right now for a number of reasons. One of them is widespread uneasiness about the soundness of the economy. Another is that the Reagan administration seems to have run out of steam. The prospect is for marking time during the last two Reagan years.

Those two factors make the Democratic nomination in 1988 worth having, and worth reaching for, as a good many Democrats are doing right now. But the aspiring Democrat must be careful how he positions himself. He cannot now foresee what circumstances will prevail in late summer of 1986. He cannot now anticipate what remedies for what ills may sound like good ideas to the voters in 1988.

My advice to any Democrat hoping for the nomination in 1988 is to cultivate an image of competence, shunning in the meanwhile any commitment to any ideological position of either right or left.

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