The Changing Game of US Politics

Five books analyze historical and contemporary campaign practices in presidential elections

THERE'S a certain majesty to the 1992 campaign - the 52nd time, in unbroken succession, that Americans have freely selected their president. But there's also a mountain of hyperbole, triviality, and banality, a condition exacerbated by the number of words written and spoken about a United States national election. That 15,600 journalists gathered in New York City for the 1992 Democratic Convention attests to how much US politics gets overdone.

How rewarding, then, to tune out the babble and enter the domain of informed analysis. Five new books on various dimensions of US politics ably provide this welcome reprieve.

Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties (Thunder's Mouth Press, 240 pp., $11.95 paper), by David Kusnet, is yet another in a long line of primers by and for Democrats concerned with their party's failures in national elections. This one is well written, ably argued, and full of sound judgment. Kusnet has been active in Democratic politics for the past two decades, working, for example, as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in his 1984 campaign and for Michael Dukakis in his 1988 bi d.

Kusnet begins with the central question about the Democratic Party's decline - why a party that knew so well how to address and represent a national majority in a series of presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt's through Lyndon Johnson's (before the Vietnam War engulfed him) now struggles so to fashion a majoritarian appeal.

Though he says the country needs the leadership of liberal Democrats in the executive branch, Kusnet offers a devastating criticism of his party's liberal establishment - as harsh as any that a conservative or Republican critic has ventured. The problem is not, he insists, a matter of Democrats nominating less telegenic candidates or falling victim to the other side's negative advertising. Rather, the party has lost at the national level because it lost the confidence of a large and diverse assortment of Americans.

I would quibble with Kusnet's choice of terms in framing his argument. The Democrats, he says repeatedly, need to speak more effectively to the "middle class" and to fashion a reinvigorated "populism." This terminology is rhetorical oversimplification left over from campaign speechwriting. Kusnet shows that his party lost touch with the views and values of Americans all across the economic spectrum, not just those in the middle, and that "populism" has no meaning beyond paying attention to the preference s of the public at large.

The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected (Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $29.95), by political scientists (and twin brothers) Earl Black and Merle Black, is a summation of the immense political changes that have transformed what was historically the country's most distinctive region.

The Blacks point out that the region's long, exclusive attachment to the Democratic Party, from the age of Andrew Jackson on through the New Deal and World War II, was based on a sense of estrangement. The South held to values that set it apart from the rest of the US, sadly so in the area of race relations, and had different needs, as the country's poorest and most agricultural section.

Today, the South has rejoined the nation; in many areas, from economic standing to social values, it is now more a microcosm of the US than an exception to the predominant lines of national development. Herein, the Blacks argue, lies the full extent of the South's importance to the Democratic Party.

When the region flipped over in stages from the l950s through the 1980s to become the most Republican part of the country in presidential balloting, this meant something beyond the fact that the Democrats were left with a big hole in the electoral college. A Democratic party, the Blacks maintain, that can't compete effectively in presidential politics in the South will be unable to do so nationally. Southern politics is now mainstream national politics.

The Democrats' choice this year of two Southerners, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Al Gore of Tennessee, to head their ticket comes as an exclamation point to the Blacks' analysis.

The Myth of the Independent Voter (University of California Press, 224 pp., $35 cloth, $13 paper) is a team effort by six scholars all trained in political science: Bruce E. Keith, David B. Magleby, Candice J. Nelson, Elizabeth Orr, Mark C. Westlye, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. The "myth" these authors expose is the idea that people who call themselves "independents" are somehow a coherent third force in US politics, between the Democrats and the Republicans.

The authors show through careful analysis of survey data that a great many independents are "closet" Democrats or Republicans - voters who cast their ballots as regularly for one party or the other as do announced partisans. Many of these "independents" are well-educated people who are highly engaged politically. They are led rather consistently by their issue stands into either the Democratic or the Republican camp, even as they insist they are "voting for the person, not the party."

Many "pure" independents - those who call themselves independents and really aren't backers of one party or the other - are relatively disengaged politically. For them, "independent" is a euphemism for uninterested and apolitical. In contrast to the "partisan" independents, the "pure" ones are hard to mobilize for any cause or party.

The one objection I would make to this generally able analysis involves the implicit judgment that independents are simply people who so define themselves in responses to the famous question George Gallup first formulated in the late 1930s: "Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, or what?" Work done by many in the field shows that the key development with regard to political independence involves not calling oneself independent but behaving that way politically.

Party ties bind Americans less tightly today than at any time since Republicans and Democrats first engaged in electoral combat nearly a century and a half ago. This weakening of party loyalties is the main factor making it possible for the country to simultaneously elect Republicans to the White House and Democratic majorities to the Congress.

Two other volumes also explode a pervasive myth in US politics - that campaigns have gotten much too expensive and the surge of big money into them has been corrupting. Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities (Yale University Press, 274 pp., $27.50), by political scientist Frank J. Sorauf, and Creative Campaigning: PACs and the Presidential Selection Process (Westview Press, 286 pp., $29.95), by political scientist Anthony Corrado, are full of sound information and good judgment about the role of mo ney in contemporary electioneering.

Far from being awash in financial resources, the political parties and their candidates are in a weaker position today than ever before. The press developed in the early years of the Republic as a party press; now, the mass media are fiercely independent and see themselves locked in an almost adversarial struggle with the parties. How curious that Americans see it as dangerous for parties and candidates to raise millions of dollars from private sources to get their messages out, but acceptable that a sma ll number of privately held mass media, especially the TV networks, raise billions to dominate the political communications process.

Never before, Sorauf shows, have Americans had so good an accounting of who contributes what to whom in political campaigns - this due to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1974 and its subsequent amendments. Incumbents are advantaged in electioneering but, Sorauf points out, this is not the main reason why a high proportion of incumbents seeking re-election are successful. By far the biggest financial advantage congressional incumbents have over their challengers accrues from the huge staffs av ailable to them at public expense. Staffs can and do serve as year-round campaign organizations.

Both authors argue that the present system of campaign finance, while far from perfect, isn't a bad compromise. Neither political party is advantaged by it. In areas where the rules are bent by the candidates in unfortunate ways, it is often because those aspects of the rules were unreasonably restrictive.

For example, Corrado shows why presidential candidates in both parties turned to setting up their own political action committees (PACs) to raise funds above those envisioned in the federal financing provisions of the FECA. In large part, PACs were created because the law does not adequately provide for the setup funding needed in the early months of the long campaigns candidates now must wage.

Together, "Creative Campaigning" and "Inside Campaign Finance" provide important, balanced perspective. They refute the view that has been pressed by organizations such as Common Cause, and by many newspaper editorial writers, that money is the root of a great failing in contemporary US electioneering.

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