Before we political pundits strike again -- out, that is -- about the grand meaning of this presidential election year and its certain winners and losers, pause briefly for a few facts.
Already this first presidential campaign of the 1980s has consumed more time, money, energy, newsprint, and broadcast hours than most that have gone before it and -- at this writing -- not a single convertion delegate has been chosen nor a lone primary ballot cast.
Yet, dextrously discarding all previous political verities about this year, we have also cast aside our earlier prediction. Now we're in danger of declaring it all overagain. Before it barely begins, of course: Carter's got it, Kennedy's through. Bush's in Reagan's out, etc., etc.
Even as these words are being written, a friend on Capitol Hills send over a fragment from a campaign year past with the wry notation, plus ca change. It's from the 1972 Democratic Fact Book, put out jointly by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee. And it serves as another warning about premature political readings.
The beginning of the presidential year brought an assessment of the state of the nation that could have been compiled by some of us wise people of the press a few weeks ago. Under a heading "the problem," it said that at the start of the '70s:
"Ii you had interviewed a representative number of Americans on the streets of towns and cities, and on farms across the country, you would have found that:
"Almost every second one felt that America had changed for the worse in the previous 10 years:
"Even more would have predicted that their country's condition would worsen in the decade to come;
"About four of every 10 would have expressed doubt that their government could actually solve the outstanding problems facing it;
"The vast majority would have voiced sorrow over the decline in religion, in morality and in the kindness with with Americans were once accustomed to treating one another;
"Well over three-quarters would have complained of high taxes concentrated on the 'little guy' and sparing the wealthy. . . ."
In short, a prescription for change, just what the Democrats thought they had in store for Nixon in that election. "Americans were already a restless and unhappy people when Richard Nixon became president," they said. "But if he is not to blame for the pervasive discontent with American institutions and government, his administration has in no way reassured and united the country and, in some instances, has damaged its spirit and sense of community."
That sound remarkably like the case the Republicans have been making against Carter -- and which a host of Democrats, of the pre-Kennedy announcing period, were vocally expressing, too.
The quick reaction to Edward Kennedy's call for gasoline rationing and wage and price controls has been to deprecate it in some quarters and write it off in others. Perhaps that will prove to be the politically correct reading. But I suspect not.
On gasoline rationing in particular, I have the sense that the voters have been far ahead of the politicians, including the president. They have a sharp appreciation of the vital relationship between the importation of oil and America's ability to defend itself abroad, for instance. And they also don't believe that voluntary conservation appeals, no matter how eloquently stated or oft-repeated, will work. Even if they themselves are conserving more, they know others are not. They want stronger action and I believe they would support a leader who calls for that type of collective sacrifice -- so long, of course, as it's fairly implemented. t
I say this not on the basis of an exhaustive voter survey, but for conversations with all types of citizens these past few years, including some top corporate executives. The easy answer that rationing didn't really work in World War II, leading instead to a bureaucratic maze and blackmarket profiteering, seems irrelevant -- unless people truly believe that the government literally can do nothing right. If so, then forget any appeals to patriotism and any hopes for acting in concert for the common good or for basic selfish self-preservation.
A second impression about voters today, at least from watching them from the campaign trail these past couple of weeks, concerns their seriousness. They listen intently, and appear without any of the ideological fervor, whether of left or right, encountered in other campaigns. Not that this should be surprising; the issues confronting citizens, and their country, are more complicated and dangerous. People have almost a desperate need to be fully informed about the possible ways to deal with them, and the consequences on their lives.
That raises a further observation about the campaign so far. The failure of Ronald Regan to attend the debate of Republican candidates in Iowa was obviously damaging But it underscores a reality facing all candidates, Democrats as well as Republicans. This year, more than any remembered, voters want to weigh the various positions offered by the candidates -- and to examine them scrupulously.
The climate exists for holding a political debate unlike any we've seen in modern times. Not the elongated "Meet the Press" panel type that has passed for all since Kennedy-Nixon, but a real debate pitting the candidates directly against each other, allowing them to explore and challenge respective views without the filter of the press. tJust get a good moderator and let them go at each other.
It probably won't occur, but if I'm right that's what people want. But then I confess my batting record so far stands about just where it deserves -- .000. No hits, no runs, and plenty of errors.