Before a gathering of Democratic members of Congress in 1993, then-presidential pollster Stan Greenberg offered a piece of advice on the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA). One-third of America is for it, one third opposes it and the other third doesn't care, he said, so it's a free vote.
Greenberg was wrong. NAFTA passed, but in the 1994 elections, the trade vote depressed turnout among union members and cost many Democrats their jobs (whether they voted for or against NAFTA), especially in the Midwest. Incumbent Democrats in Congress who survived hung on by historically low margins.
Republicans in Congress are charging off a similarly calamitous cliff with this year's $792 billion tax-cut bill. They admit to no illusion that the corporate welfare-festooned tax cut will survive a presidential veto to become law. So why are they doing it?
If lawmaking has been reduced to stage, then at least we should expect a popular act. But tax cuts aren't selling.
Consider a June ballot initiative vote in Iowa. Proponents of a measure requiring a super-majority of votes in the state legislature to pass any sales or income tax increase put their measure on a ballot certain to generate low turnout. They outspent opponents $1.7 million to $250,000. That the initiative would pass was all but an article of faith. But Iowa voters rejected it.
Now smarter politicians -- including Gov. George W. Bush -- are urging the nation to "leave no one behind," address the "care deficit" and "fix the roof while the sun is shining."
Political candidates who expect to make a connection with working families in 2000 -- yes, they will vote and they likely will determine the outcome in elections all over the country -- should understand four key changes in the political landscape.
First, recognize the change of sentiment in favor of investment in the future -- in children, education and health care. It's not that taxes don't matter to voters. But the same constituents who were determined to free their children from the burden of the national debt do not now want to squander the opportunity to invest in a new but modest standard for good schools, safe neighborhoods, a clean environment and decent health care.
Second, understand the boomer need for at least a little security. Why risk the few sure things -- a universal base of income and health care in retirement -- in an era of declining loyalty to employees and loss of benefits, irregular raises and layoffs?
When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, it's not that baby boomers are unwilling to risk change -- just that they're unwilling to bet the farm on false budget machinations.
Third, factor in the reversing tide toward concern for the poor, post-welfare reform. There is a broad appetite for fairness. In a new study commissioned by the AFL-CIO, three-quarters of working men and women under the age of 35 say the distribution of money and wealth in America is fundamentally out of whack. By consistently large margins, young workers favor public policy changes to preserve good jobs and guarantee benefits to working people. And concern for the conditions of poor families is especially high among the youngest workers, those ages 18 to 24.
Finally, remember Jesse Ventura. People may not be enamored of professional wrestlers, but they are definitely tired of professional politicians. Turnout in Minnesota soared with the entry into the 1998 governor's race of a contender more associated with Nitro night on TNT than C-SPAN. Voters are looking for someone who understands their everyday problems and concerns -- the price of prescription drugs, the tug of sick children in two-wage-earner households, the cost of repairing a dripping faucet.
Whether they're Republicans or Democrats is beside the point. Candidates in 2000 shouldn't rerun 1994.
Big tax cuts are a loser. To win in 2000, candidates should run to improve education, expand health care, reform campaign finances, shore up Medicare and Social Security and hold companies responsible to their employees and communities.
The writer is president of the AFL-CIO.