Something more than a strong signal for moderation on the part of American voters seems to be at work in our politics. Not that the importance of moderation is to be minimized. Last week's national returns, from referendums on abortion and gun control to elections in which homosexuality and blacks and women were major factors, added up to a striking rejection of extremes everywhere. But they also offered other significant political evidence of change: that voters in this supposedly ideological Reagan era are becoming less, not more, partisan. And, wonder of wonders, they're even rejecting the phony arts employed by the hucksters of our Media Age.
I offer Virginia as a prime example.
There, all the familiar trappings of the political TV commercials extolling blow-dried candidates were on daily display in the closing days of the campaign. My favorite two commercials involved the Republican candidates for governor and attorney general.
The GOP gubernatorial candidate, Wyatt B. Durrette, was shown as close as he could get to the president of the United States, who praised him effusively: The country needs this man. He needs this man. Voters, be true to yourselves and elect this latest Lincoln (or, in this case, latest Jefferson). The closing scene on Durrette's political spots showed him standing at a podium as the camera panned up at him, capturing the flags in the background and highlighting his profile as he stabbed his finger in the air and said, fatuously, "Let it be said . . . . "
Over and over on our TV screens, too, we saw the GOP candidate for attorney general, W.R. (Buster) O'Brien, lead his happy, healthy family in a frolic through the surf straight into the eye of the cameras.
These kinds of political commercials have been employed successfully in the past by Republicans and Democrats alike. That beach scene evokes the romanticized publicity shots of the Kennedy brothers in their campaigns. That podium shot of the New Lincoln is straight out of Hollywood's "The Candidate." This time, both were losers.
"The old politics of the media consultants showing the guy walking down the beach in the surf with his family, or rolling on the lawn with his kids and his dog, doesn't make it anymore," said James E. Tierney, a bright young politician from Maine who is preparing to run for governor there after serving the last five years as that state's attorney general. "That sort of stuff has less and less credibility with the voters. But the media hasn't picked up on that yet."
Tierney, 38, in a conversation the day after the election, put his finger on something else. He's a Democrat, but thinks the best analysis of the national significance of this election was given by GOP Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey. Kean, a new version of the old progressive eastern Republican thought to have become extinct, was overwhelmingly reelected last week by a cross-section of voters, including blacks and union members.
"After he won, Kean spoke about the importance of 'the politics of inclusion,' " Tierney remarked. "I agree with that. It's a reaching out across the board, in a sense the Mario Cuomo family-appeal thing. What's happening is we have a more nonpartisan politics today. Voters are looking for character, integrity, principles -- and efficiency. That's been happening all over the country. I can sense it, I can feel it, I can smell it."
Tierney also sees the present political climate as a rejection of another prevailing belief -- that Americans want government out of their lives.
"Sure," he says, "when things are going well, they don't want government bothering them, but when they're in trouble they want government to help them out. But government's got to work. Right now, I sense an unease, a kind of disquiet about the economic future. And I certainly don't think people buy the Reagan idea that they want government out of their lives."
Whether he's right remains to be demonstrated. But interestingly, and coincidentally, the respected Washington political observer Horace W. Busby adds weight to two of Tierney's other points: about increasing nonpartisanship of voters and ineffectiveness of TV media campaign wizards.
On the eve of last Tuesday's voting, Busby took a look back at the meaning of the 1984 presidential election and in so doing reinforced Tierney's observations.
"This national impulse to reduce the role of political partisanship in life as Americans are living it had another influence readily discernible last year," Busby wrote. "It is the myopia of political professionals that campaigns succeed because of their skills and cunning in devising strategies or staging events. In 1984, the amount of effort -- not to mention money -- expended on Mr. Reagan's campaigning knew no limits. Whenever he spoke, it was before a color-coordinated backdrop and his face was bathed in special lighting to assure the warmest hues for his skin on television. Yet it was openly apparent that such manipulations were having little effect on the voters. In 1984, the voters were forming their own consensus on their own decisions.
"This is a further expression of the public eagerness to be done with parties. What Republicans must accept is that the people gave Mr. Reagan his large victory; it was not won by his party. This introduces a new discipline on the Republicans: if the party is to continue winning, it must be by performance, not off loyalties."
"On Capitol Hill, this is a central concern of Republican leaders, especially in the Senate. With each passing year, the onus now attached to the Democrats as spenders and regulators recedes in its force; $2 trillion debts, $200 billion deficits become more and more the legacy and burden of the party in the White House."
Last week's election returns, especially from Virginia,are certain to stir further concern among Republicans looking to their future beyond Ronald Reagan.
The Virginia Democratic sweep -- the first woman to hold statewide office, the first black to win such a position since Reconstruction -- was fashioned by voting data that indicates white males came back to the Democrats this time. National Democratic political strategists are citing exit polling data they got from Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. on Election Day in Virginia. This showed that all three of their major candidates carried the male vote, with Attorney General-elect Mary Sue Terry scoring highest among them with 62 percent of that vote; that their winning gubernatorial candidate, Gerald L. Baliles, split the white vote 50-50 with Durrette; that L. Douglas Wilder, the black who won the lieutenant governor's contest, polled a strong 46 percent of whites voting.
All that, of course, is good news for the Democrats. More important, it's good news for all Americans regardless of political affiliation. For you can read these results and those of New Jersey as evidence not so much of great political party victories but of victory for moderation and good sense. If the criterion now employed by voters is neither sex nor race -- nor maybe even party -- but competence, the country is the winner.