About a year ago, I bought a T-shirt with a cartoon profile of a female Yuppie looking up at the sky in distress. She was crying out: "Nuclear War!?! Oh, No. There Goes My Career!!!" There was something in that line that got to me -- the black humor, the irony of it. But now when I see the T-shirt hanging in my locker, I wonder if it's the ultimate tag line on this peculiar election year.
This is a campaign of mysteries. The voters applaud Ronald Reagan's "leadership," even when they do not follow his lead on important questions. They agree with Walter Mondale's stand on many policy matters, but don't want him standing in the Oval Office.
The most glaring example of this paradox has to do with war. With monotonous regularity, the public rates nuclear war as its No. 1 concern. A full one-half of Americans surveyed believe that nuclear war will happen in their lifetime. At the same time, most of the polls of this season have shown that the public is worried about Reagan's hand on the nuclear trigger.
By any normal mathematical equation this would add up to a landslide for Mondale. But it isn't working that way. In the new math of this election, the No. 1 negative -- fear of war -- is less important than the No. 1 positive -- an improved economy.
Is this just proof of a national myopia captured by the author of my T-shirt? After all, 50 percent of Americans under 30, Reagan's largest group of supporters, believe that an all-out nuclear war is likely within 10 years.
I don't think we are suffering from madness or that we've entirely lost the instinct for self-preservation. My sense is that voters simply can't grab onto the great, amorphous, No. 1 Worry we call "nuclear war." There is no concrete solution up for a vote. What we have at the moment is a concern in search of an issue.
For a while, it looked as if the nuclear freeze would be the way to translate fear into political action. It was and is a simple way of demanding, "No more." But supporting the freeze has become, as one advocate admits, "just another way of expressing anxiety." When a majority of delegates to the Republican National Convention simultaneously back a freeze and the president who opposes it, the idea has lost some political meaning.
When The Public Agenda Foundation looked into this gap between our private worries and our public politics, it found some consensus and some confusion. Americans are absolutely clear on the dangers of nuclear war, and totally reject the notion that it could be "limited" or "winnable." We even reject the notion that there are winners in the arms race. In short, we agree on the worries.
But we are thoroughly conflicted about the nature of the Soviet threat, how to negotiate with the U.S.S.R. or how to defend ourselves in the nuclear age. In short, we don't know what to do. And "doing" is the business of politics.
As the foundation's president, Dan Yankelovich, said, "It's an enormous opportunity for what political leaders always look for, those concerns that haven't yet become an issue. It gives them a chance to take leadership." Yet, as he agrees, they haven't taken that leadership.
So far, the discussion about nuclear policy has gone on at two levels: the level of anxieties expressed by "The Day After" or "Red Dawn," and the level of technological jargon spoken by the cruise and MX missile experts. In politics, it goes on from two sides. Reagan talks tough (in the nicest possible way) and Mondale talks freeze. Reagan plays on fear of the Soviets, and Mondale on fear of Reagan. Many voters, anxious and uncertain, turn the dial to find some easy listening.
As Yankelovich said, "You can't explain the fact that the arms race isn't the No. 1 issue without some reference to the peculiar kind of national mood. It's like the public is taking a holiday from negativity, from complexity, from the big mind-breaking questions."
If we can't get a grip on the questions, if we don't see clear choices and options, we concentrate on something reassuring -- the temporary good news of the economy. But if there's anyone who really thinks we can take a holiday from the arms race, I have a T-shirt tailored just for you.