Politics of yesteryear

AMERICANS are returning from Labor Day weekend, summer's last holiday, to the realization that they will elect their next president two months from today. In weeks - nine weeks - the time sounds shorter. But is Labor Day still the wake-up call to political responsibility?

Michael Dukakis yesterday went to Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit to launch his industrial Midwest drive, as had many Democrats before him, the latest being Lyndon Johnson. A former Democrat, Ronald Reagan, made Detroit his second stop on Labor Day in 1980; but Mr. Reagan visited the State Fair Grounds farther out Woodward Avenue, on the city's outskirts.

And which is the party of ``the working man,'' given today's level of employment of women?

Democrat Jimmy Carter, who never got on well with blue-collar whites, started his fall 1980 campaign in the South. Mr. Dukakis is faring better among the so-called Reagan Democrats. But the revival of manufacturing in the United States is not exactly helping Dukakis out. The shrunken dollar has brought a turnaround in foreign trade. Steel exports are up 22 percent from last year; aluminum, 40 percent. These industries, and others like tire manufacture, are expected to continue to expand through 1989, the Wall Street Journal reports. Manufacturers who cut back after the last recession have been running near capacity. Implicit in this is the prospect of inflation. Unemployment has edged up again, to 5.6 percent. Hence, industrial centers like Detroit are aware of an unspectacular but sustained economic revival.

That revival does not extend to the millions of Americans who live in poverty - stubbornly fixed at more than 13 percent of the population, the government reported last week. Compared with its suburbs, the city core of Detroit has a large number of poor households, mostly black. Here, too, Dukakis is struggling to hold his advantage. He has had to deal with complaints that his campaign has been trying to ditch the entourage of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, on whom he was relying to help mobilize and deliver the votes of blacks.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, the farm economy that has struggled through drought and financial calamity is seeing commodity prices revive. The smallest tier of towns, no longer viable units, may soon be abandoned; and from the GOP's perspective, Iowa may be politically lost to the Democrats this year. But in neighboring Missouri the race is reportedly tied. Farmers do not vote on agricultural policies alone; defense, the environment, education, are as important to them as to urban Americans.

The political symbols of yesteryear - including Cadillac Square on Labor Day - have a fading, narrowing appeal.

Politics is more mobile and aggressive: Witness George Bush's environmental speech last week, in Boston's polluted harbor, to keep the Massachusetts governor on the defensive. And the defensive is where he is: On Friday Dukakis brought back top aide John Sasso, exiled last September for leaking to the world that presidential rival Joe Biden had cribbed from a Britisher's speech.

Labor Day no longer really starts the fall campaign. Detroit has not symbolized American manufacture since the 1950s - when Dan Quayle and his generation were still in short pants. To find some momentum, Dukakis will have to do better than resort to the Labor Day clich'e.

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