Off-Balance Politics

TRADITIONAL strategy for politicians facing elections is to shore up their base constituencies and then reach right or left to win swing voters.

But as Election Day looms, that dynamic may be thrown off balance. Core constituencies on the liberal side, notably minorities and women, are reporting such frustration that many of them may not vote at all. They hear Democrats, whom they tend to favor, vying with their Republican opponents as to who will lock up or execute more criminals. To many voters of the liberal core, blacks and others, and even swing voters, the rhetoric about crime sounds like a code for racism.

Meanwhile, in race after race, competing candidates work themselves up to fever pitch without actually distinguishing themselves from their opponents. The issues that get ventilated have tended to be personal, not political, to have little to do with how candidates would actually vote if elected.

In the business world, this might be described as too many companies (parties) competing for too narrow a share of the market, leaving much of the rest of it underserved.

Who will seize this opportunity in the marketplace of political ideas? We must be concerned about chunks of the electorate that feel marginalized, even if they are perhaps self-marginalizing. The vigor that Hispanics are bringing to the campaign against California's Proposition 187, to deny social benefits to illegal immigrants, is a heartening development in the opposite direction.

Likewise, it is notable that Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, both icons of conservatism, have seen fit to oppose Prop. 187, with its nativist tinge. Mr. Kemp spent too long as a Republican congressman representing his black constituents in Buffalo, and as a part of the racially integrated world of professional football before that, not to realize that the future of his party must be multiracial.

Nonetheless, it is a strange political landscape in which the Democrats, the party that controls the White House, both houses of Congress, and roughly three-fifths of the governor's mansions and state legislatures, find themselves running from anything that sounds like a ``Democratic'' idea.

And if Republicans take one or the other house of Congress? What are their ideas? A Republican Senate might not be so different from a Democratic one, but the Democratic lock on the House of Representatives is beginning to rival the de facto one-party rule in Mexico that is so often lamented.

Republican control of the House would put an onus on the GOP to come up with a positive program; the ``Contract With America'' was only a small step.

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