The two major parties are pursuing political strategies that are eerily remote from the major policy questions before the nation today. Overshadowing all other domestic issues are the budget and tax reform. Yet neither party has much to say about them, aside from ceremonial incantations about constitutional amendments and fairness to all concerned. While members of Congress grapple with the often unpleasant details that will affect Americans' future, the political strategists, including many of the same congressmen, talk of other things.
The Republicans seem bent on preserving the mood encapsulated for future historians in the "morning in America" commercials the Reagan campaign broadcast last year. There can be no question now that there has been, over the past 18 months, a realignment -- an increased number of voters willing to say they're Republicans and, presumably, to vote for Republicans, and an almost steady stream of officeholders and politicians, North and South, white and even black, switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party. That realignment has made Republican Edd Hargett a solid contender, and quite possibly a winner, in the special election in the east Texas House district once represented by populist Democrat Wright Patman.
The message the Republicans are using to sustain this realignment and to elect Mr. Hargett is vague. America is "better, stronger, prouder," as they proclaimed in Dallas in 1984: incomes are up, inflation down, foreign adversaries (sometimes) rebuked, traditional values applauded. Assurances are given that any tax reform will be fair to everyone and that Social Security will never, never be cut. It's a long way from the choices incumbent politicians face -- and a long way from a politics that can be sustained.
The Democrats' message is more specific, but not much more realistic. As the out party when most voters think things are going well, they're swimming against the tide and looking for any spar to hang on to. For the moment, they're grasping Social Security, which was also their big vote-winning issue in 1982. The trouble is, voters may remember that in 1983 they ended up agreeing to trim future benefits and raise future taxes. The other issue the Democrats, notably in the Texas race, are embracing is trade. It's relatively easy for the out party to cry that the Japanese should choke on their Toyotas. But it's harder in the long run for your actions to live up to your screaming rhetoric.
The Democrats since 1980 have dared not promise an ever-larger government; the Republicans, talking vaguely of cutting government waste, prescribe placebos such as the Grace Commission recommendations and carefully avoid mentioning cuts of any specific programs. The political strategists avoid the real issues while officeholders refuse to resolve them in a way anyone can defend as satisfactory. Come November 1986 they'll probably be blaming the system. But the real blame goes to the individuals who are refusing to face the music today.