Returns from Tuesday’s off-year election provided clear evidence that the nation’s yearlong siege of economic distress has profoundly transformed the political landscape, to the potential advantage of the Democratic Party and its prospects for regaining the White House in 1992.
While both parties could find pluses and minuses in the results of balloting across the country, it was the Democrats who emerged with the most significant success of the day: In Pennsylvania, the upset triumph of interim Sen. Harris Wofford offered a blueprint for how the Democrats could regain the political initiative for the first time since the onset of the Persian Gulf crisis last year began to distract public attention from domestic issues.
“Democrats have to be energized by the Pennsylvania results in terms of their 1992 presidential campaign,” Republican pollster Linda DiVall acknowledged.
What has created this brighter outlook for the Democrats, strategists in both parties agree, is the darkening mood of the electorate in the face of a steady diet of disappointing news about the economy that has continually mocked all predictions of imminent recovery.
“About six months ago, voters were worried about whether their children would be able to have as good a life as they have now,” said Robert Shrum, media consultant to the Wofford campaign and a former aide to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. “Now they are worried that they might not be able to have as good a life as they have now.”
Poll results distributed by the Democrats at their victory press conference here Wednesday support that assessment. The ratio of voters who believe that “things in the country are off on the wrong track,” which was at 39% when the Gulf War began last February, climbed to 71% by the last week in October, as calculated by an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Meanwhile, the Gallup Poll showed that approval of President Bush’s job performance, which soared to 89% in March, 1991, with the climactic success of Operation Desert Storm, was 55% in late October.
It was this mood of anxiety mixed with resentment that Wofford crafted a message to exploit. “Harris Wofford road-tested the 1992 Democratic presidential message in Pennsylvania,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who polled for Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore’s presidential campaign in 1988. “It got rave reviews and it will run well over the country.”
The message, which propelled Wofford from underdog status, nearly 45 points behind, to a stunning 55%-45% victory, had three key components:
--Advocate change; don’t defend the status quo. The 65-year-old Wofford was actually the incumbent because of his interim appointment to fill out the term of the late GOP Sen. John Heinz, but, in making his first attempt for elective office, he campaigned as a challenger. He pitted himself not just against his Republican foe, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, but of the Washington political Establishment--the Democratic Congress as well as the Republican White House.
More than any other factor, this outsider stance established the tone and purpose of Wofford’s campaign and helped to contrast him favorably with his opponent. “If you think the country is pretty much on the right course, Thornburgh is your man,” said the Harrisburg Patriot News in an editorial that endorsed Wofford and captured the thrust of his message. “If you think the nation has to address a number of serious domestic issues or face further economic and social deterioration, Wofford deserves your vote.”
--Focus on the unifying issues of economic opportunity and fairness, rather than on such divisive social issues as race and abortion.
“Republicans win elections by running on populist social issues, like crime, race and pledging allegiance to the flag,” said Wofford campaign manager Paul Begala. “Democrats have to win by concentrating on populist economic issues.” He cited Wofford support for extending unemployment benefits, taking a tougher stance with foreign governments on trade, cutting taxes and, most important of all, establishing a national health care system.
Looking back on the 1988 defeat of Democratic standard-bearer Michael S. Dukakis, Begala said: “Dukakis’ problem was not that he did not fight back,” though that is the conventional wisdom. “There’s no real defense against something like the Willie Horton commercial,” which Democrats complained Bush used to exploit racial tension. Dukakis’ real problem, Begala contended, was that he lacked what Wofford stressed--a strong argument for change based on economic populism.
--Appeal to the middle class, not just the underclass. It was this broad appeal which provided the Democrats with their presidential majorities in the heyday of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society.
Wofford’s proposals on taxes, trade and health care were targeted to reach beyond the least fortunate in society and to benefit the bulk of voters who earn their livelihood and fall somewhere in the middle of the economic spectrum.
“I want to build a fire under my own party,” the triumphant Wofford said here Wednesday, “on a point that I presented to Democrats in Pennsylvania--that it’s time for us to recognize that we do best and we are strongest when the programs we advance help all the people and are not just targeted programs for the very poor. It’s best for the very poor and it’s best in getting a consensus that we will uphold action if they’re programs that help everybody, such as Social Security and . . . national health insurance.”
None of this will be easy for Democrats to implement on a national basis.
Not only are they still lacking an obvious leader who can rally diverse elements of the party and attract independent voters as well, but returns from states beyond Pennsylvania pointed up other problems as well.
In Mississippi, the defeat of incumbent Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus by Republican businessman Kirk Fordice, whose campaign included attacks on quotas, welfare and the Voting Rights Act, was a reminder of the party’s vulnerability to a candidate able to exploit racial antagonism.
Similarly, in Washington state, a well-organized attempt to adopt a drastic limit on legislative and congressional terms was beaten only narrowly, a reminder of the strong resentment of Congress--which is controlled by Democrats. Republicans argued that this deep-seated hostility will make it difficult for the Democrats to present their party’s presidential candidate as the force for change in 1992.
Control of Congress “is a major albatross” for the Democrats in the current political climate, contended GOP pollster DiVall.
But Democrats claim this is a problem they can solve. “This is not an anti-incumbent message, its an anti-business-as-usual message,” Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, asserted Wednesday. The response, he said, “is to campaign on the issues, on helping out those people who have been shunted aside.”
“This is not the time for incumbents to rest on their laurels,” Fazio said. “This is the time to tell people in very clear colors what your view of the future is. I think Democrats are prepared to do that. If there were any doubts, I think Harris Wofford cleared them up.”
Times staff writer Paul Houston contributed to this story.