Election '88: sprint to the wire. Much at stake for high court and level of federal activism

It may be too long. It may be boring for many Americans. But Election '88 will have a potentially enormous impact on the United States, both at home and abroad, for many years to come. As Michael Dukakis and George Bush launched their fall campaigns at Labor Day rallies in the Midwest and California, the experts tell us that many Americans still aren't focusing on politics.

Yet in just nine weeks, when citizens finally troop to the polls, they will be deciding several pivotal questions with a single vote for either the Democratic or Republican ticket:

What will be the direction of the United States Supreme Court for the next generation?

Should the changes Ronald Reagan brought to Washington, including slower growth of government, be continued?

Should the US push ahead with costly, controversial new weapons systems, including the Strategic Defense Initiative, or should some programs be slowed or scrapped?

What should be done about the soaring deficit, including the possible need for new taxes?

What should be done about intensifying economic competition from Asia and Europe?

It's the question about the Supreme Court that captivates many experts.

``All presidential elections are important,'' says Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden Jr. But 1988 could have a long-term effect, as it could cement conservative control of the Supreme Court for many years, he says.

Political scientist Larry Sabato agrees. ``We are actually voting for two branches of government with one vote,'' says Dr. Sabato, who teaches at the University of Virginia.

A number of court justices are expected to retire in the next few years, he observes, and whoever becomes president could put his stamp on the court into the 21st century.

Ironically, the full importance of the 1988 election may not be apparent for a number of years. Sabato says that ``after Reagan was elected in 1980, there were many analyses disputing that it was significant. Some said it was just a passing trend in reaction to Jimmy Carter.''

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, doubts that 1988 will be ``one of those seminal elections, like 1932 ... or 1860.'' The nation faces neither depression nor war - the great events that often shape great presidencies.

But Mr. Hess cautions: ``The president can do things you never expected.''

G.Donald Ferree, a public-opinion expert at the University of Connecticut, says the choice between Governor Dukakis and Vice-President Bush will make a lasting difference in many areas.

By and large, Democrats under Dukakis would favor a more active federal government. They want Washington to address critical national problems and to raise taxes if necessary to pay for it, Mr. Ferree says. They would also reverse the trend to deregulate industries, such as airlines, he believes.

Republicans under Bush, while more moderate than under Mr. Reagan, would nevertheless move more slowly than Democrats to regulate, to tax, to intervene in the nation's economic and social problems. There would be a greater inclination to leave problems to the private sector, or to state and local governments, he suggests.

Ferree says that on the surface, one might expect the Republicans to plump for a much bigger military than the Democrats. But the differences might be less grand than expected.

The reason: The public likes the idea of a lean-and-mean military, one that delivers more bang for the buck. Bush might be forced to adjust to that new public mood, Ferree says.

Relations with the Soviets could be significantly different, however, depending on the outcome of the election.

``The relationship would be on a different footing with Dukakis,'' Ferree says. ``There is more willingness to trust by Dukakis. There would be an underlying toughness and skepticism in a Bush administration.''

But Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, says one of the most interesting things to watch will be how the next president handles the growing deficits. In many ways, Dr. Polsby says, the deficits were the biggest change Reagan brought to Washington.

However, Ferree, like a number of other analysts, comes back to the Supreme Court, where the greatest differences might show up in the new administration. Says Ferree:

``I cannot imagine Dukakis appointing a judge who would remotely consider reversing Roe v. Wade,'' the main abortion ruling. Bush might well do so.

Former congressman John Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way, says: ``It is not at all unlikely that the next president can impact the course of law for a generation. Reagan has not done it yet, but a massive effort was required to keep that from happening.''

Mr. Buchanan worries particularly about Republican pledges to appoint judges on the basis of ideology. He does ``not feel great concern'' that Dukakis would appoint ideological judges, though he admits ``one cannot know for sure.''

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