HAVRE DE GRACE -- In November 1988, just as George Bush was sweeping to a victory which he would never quite understand was above all a legacy from Ronald Reagan, another quite extraordinary election was taking place in New York.
There, in defiance of the Republicans' presidential success, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was riding a tidal wave of popular support to win a third term. His margin of 2.1 million votes was the largest Senate plurality in American history.
The senator carried 61 of the state's 62 counties, including Dutchess County, a conservative stronghold that had voted against its own Franklin Roosevelt in four presidential elections. Statewide exit polls indicated Mr. Moynihan had received 94 percent support from blacks and 90 percent from Reagan-voting Democrats. New Yorkers with graduate degrees gave him three-fourths of their votes, and so did those who didn't finish high school.
It was a political triumph of historic proportions, and was widely cited as reassuring evidence that Democrats were as electable as ever if they could only be astute enough, as Mr. Moynihan had been, to sound the right themes and be almost all things to almost all voters.
Six years later there was quite another lesson to be drawn. In 1994, although he had just helped shepherd the largest tax increase in American history through the Congress, Senator Moynihan was still esteemed in his state. He was untouched by scandal, and remained an acknowledged intellectual leader in the Senate. He faced a distinctly second-level Republican opponent in the general election.
Yet although he won his fourth term easily, by some 600,000 votes, he only carried 16 counties outside of New York City. Across the country, Democrats of comparable experience and sagacity were going under by the score. Something had changed, changed utterly. And now, two years later and with another election in the offing, it seems unlikely that President William Jefferson Clinton is going to change it back.
What the election is about
Although the Republicans would like to make it so, the 1996 presidential election is not about character. It is only superficially about Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Al Gore and Jack Kemp. Much more fundamentally, it is about the size and power of government, and about how much of their money and freedom Americans are willing to grant government in exchange for its benefits.
This is true these days not only of presidential elections. In 1994 Marylanders didn't choose between Ellen Sauerbrey and Parris Glendening on the basis of the candidates' resumes, or their endorsements, or their personal qualities. What counted most of all was their perceived intentions to expand or reduce the cost and scope of state government.
Indirectly, that's what the current rather furtive efforts among some prominent Democrats to unhorse Mr. Glendening are about as well. It's obvious within the party that the governor, as the symbol of an unpopular status quo, is likely to be more a liability than a leader in 1998. So the power brokers fantasize about replacing their incumbent governor with a camouflage candidate, who would be a Democrat but wouldn't look like one.
While a few fringe Republicans really do espouse the view that government is basically wicked, what tends to animate many more conservative voters has less to do with morality than it does with government impact on individuals.
In 1995, new federal regulations as published in the Federal Register took up 67,518 pages. That's not evidence of wickedness, but it does suggest an unelected bureaucracy whose efforts to direct the smallest details of American life are completely beyond anything resembling democratic control.
The above-mentioned Senator Moynihan, in a characteristically eloquent and insightful memoir to be published this fall, notes that his own party's congenital inability to recognize government's adverse impact has been a prime cause of its precipitous decline in national stature.
For years, he writes, politically influential New York received far more money from the federal government than its residents paid in taxes. This was devastatingly inequitable, "and more devastating still was our inability to grasp this. Federal money was seen as a free good, and -- especially for liberals -- the more, well, the merrier. The thought that the federal budget was, in fact, a debilitating exaction . . . was beyond our political reach."
But not, it turned out, beyond the reach of the electorate.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 9/08/96