TO understand why Americans choose a particular person to lead their nation at a particular moment in history is to go a long way toward understanding the soul of America itself. How do the political dynamics shape up for 1988? The rise of a new generation
In the 27 years since John F. Kennedy's election, a single generation, born between 1908 and 1924, has governed. Its political approach was molded by its formative experiences - the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, World War II, and America's emergence as the protector of the free world.
While one generation has led the nation since the Kennedy era, a different generation has come to ascendancy in the American electorate. This generation has become impatient for its time in the sun. It is more evident on the Democratic side. With the exception of Paul Simon, all the leading Democrats were born in 1932 or later, and Michael Dukakis is the only other Democratic contender who was old enough to vote (in the days of the 21-year-old voting age) in the 1956 election. Bruce Babbitt and Charles Robb were eligible to vote for president for the first time in 1960, the year Kennedy was elected. Others, including Joseph Biden, Richard Gephardt, Bill Bradley, Jesse Jackson, and Albert Gore, were not old enough to vote when Kennedy's generation followed Dwight Eisenhower's.
The Republican candidates are older. George Bush, Robert Dole, and Alexander Haig were born in the first half of the 1920s and (like Presidents Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan) were old enough to enlist during World War II. Jack Kemp and Pierre duPont, both born in 1935, can claim themselves members of the ``new'' generation.
The candidates who will fare best in 1988 will be those who best understand what appeals to the 60 percent of the electorate who became eligible voters after Kennedy's election. This new electorate is better educated, more white collar. It is less likely to feel dependent on government and more likely to be skeptical of ``big'' government. It tends to cynicism about big institutions. It is more tolerant on social issues - particularly those dealing with the role of women.
Perhaps because too many politicians have stuck to the old dogmas too long, the new generation is much less likely than its predecessors to come to the political process with any deep sense of partisan loyalty. Today's electorate is much more independent, and much more inclined to pick and choose from candidates of either party. (Of the 28 states that held elections for both senator and governor in 1986, 11 elected candidates from opposing camps.)
The most profound changes with which the 1988 candidates must deal in reaching out to the new generation are cultural. Our life styles and social reference points have been transformed since Kennedy's day. Then, Elvis was king, Frank Sinatra was a member of the Rat Pack rather than Chairman of the Board, and Bruce Springsteen was a Little Leaguer and not yet ``the Boss.''
In our popular democracy, politics is ultimately an exercise in the art of communication. As we move ahead to a new generation of political leadership in 1988, one candidate may come to define his age by capturing the cultural dynamics of his time - just as Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy did at earlier crossroads of the 20th century.
One final point about the demographics of members of the new electorate: They live in places different from those where Americans lived when John Kennedy entered the White House. Four of the northern industrial states won by Kennedy gave him 124 of the 269 electoral votes needed for victory; population shifts have made these same states account for just 105 electoral votes today.
The mood: ready to move forward
As Jimmy Carter demonstrated when he capitalized on the voters' disgust with Watergate, and as Ronald Reagan showed when he rode to the White House on the strength of voters' dissatisfaction with the status quo under Mr. Carter, candidates succeed when they articulate a message that captures the underlying mood of the electorate. In fact, Mr. Reagan achieved both his victories because he voiced the temper of the times - first in 1980 when he asked Americans to base their vote on whether they felt ``better off today than ... four years ago,'' and in 1984 when he celebrated ``morning in America,'' confident that voters felt the country was moving in the right direction.
In 1988, an underlying uncertainty about America's future will control the political environment. Voters are not unhappy about where the country is today, but they have nagging doubts as to whether America is prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow - in economic competitiveness, technological advancement, or educational excellence. And as they look to the federal government in Washington, they sense that things have come to a standstill. On issues such as the budget deficit, the trade deficit, the farm crisis, and arms control, voters feel they hear plenty of talk but see little action.
More than anything else, Americans come to the 1988 election with a feeling that it is time to move the country forward. Even in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, there is little in the underlying mood that indicates a desire to use this election to repudiate Ronald Reagan - which makes Reagan more fortunate than predecessors Carter, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson. Still, none but the most partisan Republicans are inclined to let Reagan anoint his successor.
The ability to project a new approach for America's future is crucial, because voters feel that although the Reagan revolution has run its course, it's too late to return to the approach that Reagan replaced. Reagan put an end to liberalism in government as America knew it for 50 years, but Americans do not feel he has provided the answer to what comes next.
Here are three pieces of advice we offer the candidates for 1988:
Challenge the voters; don't coddle them. After all these years of hearing the rosy view from Ronald Reagan, voters are ready for a dose of reality.
Play for the long term. Voters feel that the United States has been making a number of short-term decisions without comprehending their long-range implications - on the budget deficit, toxic waste, education, and research.
Talk to a sense of involvement, rather than individualism. Values that reflect a sense of community are becoming important; parents want their children to develop a sense of purpose that transcends material success.
One final word of advice for the candidates: A vision of the future is more than an aggregate of policies and programs. People need some overarching sense of where their leaders are taking them.
The agenda: economic renewal
In 1988 all candidates will try to claim ``economic renewal'' as their own issue. The public fears the US economy is losing ground in the world competition.
Some candidates in the 1988 field might think they can deal with the economic issue by a continuation of the Reagan years. The current economic picture - a booming stock market, a drop in the unemployment rate, the absence of any real inflation - might give these candidates cause for hope. But the economic stand-patters are in for a rocky road. Voters who welcomed the ``Reagan recovery'' do not trust in its permanence.
The candidates who deal most effectively with the voters' economic concerns are likely to make the following ideas a central part of their campaign:
A commitment to investing in America's economic resources. Voters recognize that, to compete in today's economic world, America must be ready to ``work smart'' and retake the lead in applications of new technology. There will be continued stress on improving elementary and secondary education, with clearer standards of accountability, and an emphasis on opportunities for job training and retraining in adulthood.
A commitment to ensuring a fair deal for America in world trade. While we will hear heated debates about the vices and virtues of free trade and protectionism, Americans are offended by the notion that the rules of international trade are stacked against the US. Many voters oppose measures designed merely to protect the status quo in poorly performing industries, but there is a strong consensus that America must be more active in standing up for itself when it becomes the victim of unequal trading relationships.
A commitment to helping small business and the family farm. To as great an extent as ever, Americans believe that ``small is beautiful'' in our economy. The successful candidate will demonstrate that he shares this value - after a period in which many voters came to believe that the ``big guys'' got the breaks. Concern for the small entrepreneur is crucial in the case of the family farmer.
A commitment to incentives for job creation, rather than for corporate mergers and billion-dollar takeovers. The year 1988 holds the potential for candidates with a populist approach to economic issues. Voters have little sympathy with big businesses that expend their capital on corporate battles rather than on productive investments.
On the domestic side, environmental issues have sparked increasing concern, particularly among the younger half of the electorate. The threats of toxic and nuclear waste are probably the biggest ``hot button'' political issues today.
Potential sleeper issues include hunger and homelessness, the cost of health care (especially for senior citizens), and the crisis in liability insurance. These touch fundamental feelings among voters.
The right stuff: active, involved
Choosing a president is the most personal vote a person can cast. The voter asks himself: Do I trust this person? Is he up to the job? Can he handle the pressure?
After eight years of Reagan, the American people will have a hard time accepting a replacement who lacks the courage of his convictions.
What do the voters now want that they feel Reagan did not give them?
First, the 1988 electorate will look for the candidate who has the ability to understand policy and will think through the consequences of his decisions.
Second, voters want a candidate who will take charge of his administration.
Finally, the one unquestionable weakness that has dogged Reagan since the first day of his presidency is the perception that he and his policies are unfair to the average person. The counter in 1988 will not be a reversion to the redistributionist policies of past years (we are a people who care more about enlarging the pie than dividing it equally), but rather a greater emphasis on compassion for the disadvantaged among us.
Peter D. Hart and Geoffrey Garin are Democratic pollsters.