"The country is turned off on policitcs. So prominent leaders are particularly vulnerable, and negative attacks succeed.
That is the lesson in the latest round of primary elections. It explains the dismal nature of the presidential campaign, and points up the opportunity for John Anderson.
The turnout provides the best measure of the anti-political mood. In the New York senatorial primary, less than 30 percent of the eligible Democrats went to the polls. And less than 24 percent of the eligible Republican precedent, but on the Democratic side, despite a starstudded cast and huge spending, the total vote fell below that in the Senate primary four years ago.
In Florida, a state fraught with political tensions arising out of fast growth and racial trouble around Miami, less than 35 percent of the registered voters participated in the Republican and Democratic primaries for a Senate seat. "You wouldn't believe the lack of interest," Eugene Patterson, of the St. Petersburg Times, remarked the day after the vote.
In Connecticut, the only primary took place on the Republican side. Of the more than 400,000 eligible voters, only a little more than 100,000 went to the polls.
Colorado provides a technical exception. More than half of the eligible voters cast ballots in the Republican primary for the Senate. But there was a preestablished turning away. Thirty-seven percent of the Colorado electorate is registered as independent -- a higher figure than for either Republicans (35 percent) or Democrats (28 percent).
Jacob Javits, the four-term senator from New York, was the outstanding figure to go down. In his case, a true giant bit the dust. But notables were also defeated on the Democratic side in New York. Bess Myerson, the former Miss America who spent heavily on television, ran a bad second to Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman. John Lindsay, the former mayor of New York City, was also beaten out for third place by a virtually unknown district attorney from Queens, John Santucci.
In Florida, the sitting senator, Richard Stone, barely finished first and will have to face a runoff. In Colorado, former secretary of the Army Bo Callaway lost the primary. Only in Connecticut, where former New York senator James Buckley won, did fame pay off.
Analyzing the whys and wherefores of primary elections is a markedly chancy business. But in the case of Sen. Javits there seems little doubt. He was done in by an obscure local official, Alfonse D'Amato, who waged a nasty personal campaign that emphasized the senator's age and health.
The campaign against Sen. Stone centered on his vote for the Panama Canal treaty. Buckley won in Connecticut because he had the support of the ideological conservative lobby -- itself an anti-political force. As to Colorado, the same animus found expression in another way. Mary Estill Buchanan won the Senate nomination thanks mainly to a widely publicized court fight that got her name on the ballot only six days before the election. The connection between these disparate results and the presidential election hardly needs underlining. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan embody the anti-political mood.
Both are amateurs in national government. Both run against Washington bureaucracy. Both contend that, as Carter once put it, the country "deserves a government as good and loving and honest as the American people." But to say that is to promote the narcissism of the millions. It is to legitimize private self-indulgence at the expense of public good, and to sanction, when things go wrong, the hunt for scapegoats.
Government, in those circumstances, becomes practically impossible. People who want to make the system work are repelled. The parties become prey to the militant minorities, and those in turn keep nominating the likes of Carter and Reagan.
The only way to break this vicious cycle is to shatter the underlying harmony that binds the candidates of the two parties. That means going against the notion, favored by both Carter and Reagan, that there should be a tax give-away without a measure of restraint on prices and wages. It means fighting the illusion, shared by Carter and Reagan, that more energy can be produced without paying for it.
Rep. Anderson may not be perfect. But when it comes to opposing the products of a failed political system, he's all there is, and that's better than nothing at all.