Can there be such a thing as a dull election year? I never used to think so, but 1986 is shaking my faith. There is some suspense this year -- will the Democrats recapture the Senate? -- and you can say, as you can about any election year, that this will be a transition from something to something else.
But so far this year's electioneering has told us little about post-Reagan American politics, nothing about the long-term prospects of the two major parties and not much more than we can learn from skimming poll results about opinion on the major issues of the day. Yet I do not despair of the American political system. The dullness of this election year is a symbol not that the system is in trouble, but that it is working, for us aficionados of electoral politics, all too well.
That is true because -- not although -- the balance on major issues doesn't seem likely to be affected much by any likely set of election results. On macroeconomic issues, the evidence is firm that Americans don't want the federal role much bigger or much smaller than it is now. Even in the high- unemployment states in the Mississippi Valley, from the Great Lakes to the now afflicted Oil Patch states of Texas and Louisiana, you won't find many candidates calling for government jobs programs or relief for the unemployed.
The Farm Belt is reeling from drops in farm prices, but most Farm Belt Republicans have long since joined Farm Belt Democrats in calling for certain programs which, in turn, Congress seems unlikely to vote no matter what happens in the Farm states. The Republican realignment that seemed apparent in the South in 1984 and 1985 has sparked few Republican challenges in rural southern districts, perhaps becaus the party lost the Texas first special election last year; but the trade issue, which helped win that contest for the Democrats, has been emphasized by few Democrats this year.
In other election years -- 1958, 1964 and 1974 for Democrats, 1966, 1978 and 1980 for Republicans -- you had cadres of challenger candidates, complete with policies to put in place once they won. You simply don't find cadres like that this year.
What you do find is incumbents who have their positions covered. "All politics is local," Tip O'Neill says, and the politics of 1986 is more local than most. Republican senators may have gotten elected on Ronald Reagan's national platform in 1980, but, like the Democrats who survived that year, they have planned for harder times and have staked out positions that are popular locally and have worked their states like freshman congressmen working marginal districts. The result is that such incumbents as Charles Grassley and Alfonse D'Amato in Iowa and New York, respectively -- both stats with high Mondale votes in 1984 -- are strong favorites for reelection. On divisive issues, politicians are adroit at staying out of trouble. On Nicaraguan contra aid, for example, House Republicans from dovish Iowa all voted no, and Democrats from the hawkish South mostly voted yes. Few congressmen took a stand that will get them in trouble locally.
The suspense that remains is focused on personal questions. What will be the impact in Florida of Paula Hawkins' back operation? Will Bill Janklow's primary challenge of Jim Abdnor split South Dakota Republicans? Will Jim Santini's party switch be viewed as principled or opportunistic? On such questions probably hinges control of the Senate. None of them tells us much about American politics post-1986.
What it does is not what is going to happen on the campaign trail but what is already happening in state capitals and even here in Washington. You can criticize candidates who are careful to stress locally important issues and to stay out of trouble on national issues that they cannot avoid. But you also have to give credit to politicians who anticipate the public's response to important issues and provide voters, even before they have a chance to speak, with what they want.
For politicians are not only exquisitely sensitive registers of public opinion; the best of them have taken to looking ahead to find what the public may be discontented about five or 10 years from now, and they are trying to do something about those problems now. Thus Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt and Jack Kemp, as well as Ronald Reagan on tax reform; Reagan and conservative activists on the Nicaragua contras; Daniel Patrick Moynihan and such conservative intellectuals as Charles Murray and Michael Novak on welfare and poor children. You may not agree with their solutions, but they have all attacked problems that they reasonably believe, will have a major public impact some years down the pike.
This type of political leadership may or may not produce wise policy, but, because it either produces consensus or nothing at all, it doesn't produce interesting electoral politics. 1986 will have some fireworks and some fascinating personal confrontations (none more so than in Maryland), and the elections will have some interesting unanticipated effects. But, as a foretaste of the future or as battles over the issues of the day, they're likely to be pretty dull. There is a paradox here for lovers of politics. The better the system works -- the better the politicians anticipate problems and reflect the ultimate views of their constituents -- the worse elections will prove as entertainment and the more unnecessary they will be for settling important issues.