Something is stirring on the political front, and it's about time. Until recently, it's been a phony war: posturing among presidential candidates, incessant media "horse race" polls detailing which candidate has what meaningless percentage lead over another, arcane analyses of which Machiavellian political campaign strategy seems likely to produce what results.
Now there are welcome signs that the politicians are revising their text, to the public's benefit. In political terms, they're starting to call a spade a spade instead of a blunt instrument for moving earth.
In Iowa, as Washington Post staff writer Paul Taylor reports, Democratic candidates are going on the attack. They're assailing the greed, privilege and self-interest that have characterized the 1980s and repeatedly elevated private interests over public ones.
Taylor calls this "the politics of resentment." Such an approach will likely strike sparks among the voters. There is much to be resentful about. For many months, voters I've interviewed around the country have expressed growing concern about national conditions. Increasingly, they seem in a mood for blunt talk, real emotion and evidence of action from their political leaders. The ebullient "it's morning in America again" message of President Reagan's reelection campaign four years ago has long since been relegated to the bin containing other half-remembered, and mistaken, political slogans.
Voters know that all's not well on several fronts. In fact, they repeatedly volunteer their fear that events at home and abroad seem dangerously out of control.
The new populist campaign rhetoric may intensify those concerns but perhaps compel more candid political debate about possible solutions. The danger, of course, is that it degenerates into demagoguery or produces another negative feeling among the electorate: an unwanted national downer, similar to the overwhelming public reaction to President Jimmy Carter's hang-dog, hand-wringing talk about a national malaise.
Voters are looking for something better than appeals to their fears and resentments. They're looking for straight talk and realism.
I've heard that theme expressed often in recent months, but no one put it better than a young farmer in Mason City, Iowa, shortly before Christmas.
Like many others, John E. Anderegg, 39, was nearly wiped out in the farm depression. He still struggles with heavy new debts. He voted for Reagan in 1980.
"When we had inflation," he said, "we thought we were well off. Very few people had a true concept of what they were really worth -- the banks, ourselves. Everyone thought, well, each year just add another 10 percent. Great. The only good thing, I guess, that came out of the decline in farming is that the banks require a stronger cash flow, a little more responsibility in your accounting of what you've got out there. You realize, when you look back, that you never really did have control -- in my case, at least, I didn't have as much control as I thought I had control . . . .
"I liken it to a young person coming out of school and going into the stock market. If you looked down the road, there was no end to it. If you bought a stock for $10 today, it would be worth $11 tomorrow. You made 10 percent. If you bought land for $1,000, the next year it would worth $1,200. Inflation was carrying it. Where was the real value of the stock? Although the $1,000 land is producing no more grain than it did the year before, you say, well, I'm better off.
"The same way with the stock. The stock that was $10 at the beginning of the year was $20 before last Oct. 1. But the earning potential of that stock was no greater than it was. Maybe it was even a little worse. Pretty soon, boom! -- it hit.
"It hit the farming economy just like it hit the stock market. Overnight, it was gone. It wasn't a slow escalation. You'd go tothe bank, and they'd say: 'This land that you say is worth $2,500 an acre -- we're saying it's worth $900 an acre today.' And that happened. I can go through our balance sheet and show you. Same way with the stock. In the morning, they went to work, and it was $20. At the end of the night, it was $10. It was gone. But the same economy was being represented there, the same people have to make a living off of it.
"Reality, I guess, happened. We were living in an imaginary world. They were. We were. Now we're back down to a little bit of reality and the rest of the economy's coming down with us."
If this Iowa farmer is typical, and I think he is, voters in 1988 aren't looking for the politics of resentment. They're looking for the politics of realism.