Next president must lead - slowly. Either man will have to balance change, continuity

Ronald Reagan has a lot riding on Election '88. If George Bush wins today's presidential vote, it will be a reaffirmation of the Reagan years - with all that implies about government growth, defense spending, and the direction of the United States Supreme Court.

If Michael Dukakis triumphs, he vows to undo much of Mr. Reagan's legacy, especially in areas like strategic defense, deregulation, and the courts.

Political insiders, who widely expect a Bush victory today, call this a ``confirmation'' election - one that will lock in many of the changes brought to Washington by President Reagan.

``This election fundamentally changes nothing'' if Mr. Bush wins, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, agrees that 1988 won't be a pivotal election - such as 1932, during the depression, or 1860, on the eve of the War Between the States. There is no national crisis driving voters toward major changes.

Republicans have a lot at stake in today's outcome, however. Addressing audiences in California, Reagan said:

``We've come a long way in the last eight years, but, my friends, everything that you and I and George Bush have worked for these last eight years - everything - could be lost faster than you could say `furlough.'''

Though there would be major distinctions between a Bush White House and a Dukakis White House, either will have to work under severe fiscal restraints.

The federal deficit (now over $150 billion a year) and the growing national debt (now over $2 trillion) will make it difficult to initiate new, costly programs.

Within the limits of the budget, however, experts say Bush and Mr. Dukakis would send Washington in fundamentally disparate directions.

Perhaps most important, says pollster Claibourne Darden, would be the Supreme Court. A Bush victory will almost certainly cement conservative control of the court well into the 21st century.

Dr. Sabato agrees - noting that with a single vote today, Americans will be electing two branches of the government.

Beyond the court, political analysts expect the outcome of today's vote to be significant in a number of areas, particularly if Dukakis pulls an upset.

The governor would bring a more activist government into Washington, experts say. He would be more inclined to intervene in economic and social problems, to slow the rate of business consolidation, to build business-government partnerships. He might also slow, or even reverse, the trend toward deregulation of certain industries, such as airlines.

A Bush White House would be inclined to leave problems to the private sector. The new president would push for a capital-gains tax cut in hopes that it would foster new investments and more jobs. Deregulation, one of his roles under Reagan, could get fresh impetus.

During the campaign, Bush promised not to raise taxes. His top aide, James Baker III, vows that Bush would back that promise with a veto of any new taxes. That would boost pressure on Congress to freeze spending across the board, with the exception of social security and other entitlement programs. Even defense could feel the pinch, despite Bush's strong support for military spending.

Bush won't be able simply to walk in Reagan's footsteps. The country has changed. The latest ABC News poll, taken in October, shows that the nation is almost evenly divided (47 percent to 46 percent) between those who want continuity and those who want new initiatives in Washington.

William Schneider, a Washington analyst, told a TV interviewer recently: ``This year the voters are poised between change and continuity. They could go either way. They want change, but they also want to retain the things that Ronald Reagan achieved as President.''

During the campaign, Republicans tried to play off both public desires.

Reagan, stumping across 15 states in recent days, put it most succinctly: ``They talk about it being time for a change. Where have they [the Democrats] been the last eight years? We are the change.''

Reagan argued that it was Dukakis who represented the ``stagnant status quo'' of big-spending liberalism.

Yet Dukakis touched on some changes the public wants to see: higher ethics in government, help for the homeless, better education, improved productivity to meet competition from abroad.

Bush cannot ignore these areas. If he wins today, the success of his new administration may depend on how quickly he meets such concerns.

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