CHICAGO -- Here in the heartland, the perspective on American politics is almost exactly opposite that of Washington. The Iran-contra hearings, which have dominated the last three months of official attention in the capital, already have faded as a topic of conversation among midwestern voters and the state and local politicians I was covering the past week at conferences in Traverse City, Mich., in Indianapolis and here.
Democratic presidential candidates, who were cruising the same route, drew only perfunctory responses if they picked at the scab of President Reagan's self-inflicted wound. Republicans encountered along the way offered no defense of the haphazard White House operations detailed in the hearings. But neither were they defensive about them or inclined to believe those gaffes will dominate the voters' consciousness in the 1988 election campaigns.
What is visible once the mists of Washington are parted is the mounting evidence that the Reagan era really is over and that a new, down-to-earth attitude of progressive practicality is gaining momentum.
Listening to the governors and state legislators at their annual meetings conveyed a sense of reality -- including fiscal reality -- sorely missing in Washington. It showed in the report on state finances released during the legislators' meeting in Indianapolis.
As you know, Republicans had a good year in the state elections last November, gaining eight governorships to offset their loss of that many Senate seats. That trend might reasonably have been thought to presage more conservative state policies -- a hold-the-line approach. But it did not.
Instead, 40 states revamped their tax codes this year and even more revised their spending priorities to adjust to changing conditions. While Washington dithered through another feckless season of hand-wringing about the federal budget deficit, turning back once more to that confession of institutional failure called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, 31 states bravely raised taxes to finance needed expenditures.
These included a number of states with newly elected Republican governors, among them Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Those governors and legislatures do not share Reagan's pathological aversion to taxes, nor are they wont to disguise what they do in the euphemisms of Capitol Hill.
While they were rewriting their tax codes, the states also made them more progressive, both by increasing standard deductions and exemptions to reduce the burden on low- and middle-class families and by following the example of the 1986 federal tax reform in closing a number of loopholes favored by the rich. Some states also tilted to equity in the way they redistributed the proceeds of the one-time windfall they received from that federal tax reform.
These actions, along with the continued emphasis on education and economic development, and the signs of growing state aid to cities, all paint a picture of state governments moving ahead to meet the challenges of the next decade.
The final gathering I covered added another dimension to the out-of-Washington picture. It was a meeting of some 1,200 leftist activists who make a living as field organizers and financial canvassers for the network of "citizen-action" organizations that have come into being in almost half the states.
These groups, which lobby and litigate on toxic waste, tax, utility, health, safety and civil-rights issues, representing what they see as a consumer-worker viewpoint, are a growing political presence and force in the country.
They claim to have 1.5 million dues-paying members and to be growing at the rate of 250,000 a year. I can't vouch for either figure, but their credibility is good enough that six of the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls showed up at the motel near O'Hare airport where they were meeting last weekend, eager to solicit their support and recruit them as campaign workers.
The meeting demonstrated the continued leftist pressures that operate on candidates in the Democratic presidential nomination process -- defying the strategic advice so many Washington big shots give to their hopefuls to find the center of the road.
But it may also signal something more important: a return to fundamentals in American politics. The citizen-action groups use the most basic of organizing techniques: they send people (mostly bright, displaced young people) door to door to collect money and membership cards from residents, on a promise that the proceeds will be used to fight for a clean environment, health and safety measures, lower utility rates or similar goals.
The groups have drawn criticism for exploiting emotional appeals and using proceeds for staff salaries. The leaders concede that all too often, they have failed to follow up with the member/contributor after the first contact, but they vow they will do so increasingly -- by phone calls, direct mail and video cassettes.
The growth of this kind of personal-contact progressive movement during the Reagan years, which have been dominated by the mass-media merchandising of conservatism, cannot be insignificant. I take it as another sign that politics in America is far different from what the parochial view from Washington would suggest.