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US politics: the unlosable constituencies

US politics are usually discussed in terms of states. Which way will New York, Pennsylvania, California, etc. go? There is still much in this since the country still votes by states. There is enough in it to make nothing official about nominations until the California, New Jersey, and Ohio primary election results are in after the voting of next Tuesday, June 3.

Then, and only formally then, will it be clear that the Republican convention in Detroit in mid-July will nominate Ronald Reagan and the Democratic convention in New York in mid-August will renominate President Carter (barring, of course, some unforeseeable change in the surrounding circumstances).

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But Messrs. Reagan and Carter are so far ahead of their respective rivals in their respective parties by now that the major speculation has already turned to the identity of the man Mr. Reagan will choose as his running mate. Secondary attention has turned to whether Mr. Carter will be able to achieve a reconciliation with the Kennedy faction in the Democratic Party. That it will be a contest between Messrs. Reagan and Carter is no longer in any serious doubt.

The speculation about Mr. Reagan's prospective running mate is particularly important since, if my reasoning is correct, the election in November is likely to be determined by whether Mr. Carter or Mr. Reagan can get farthest from his political base. And here, at least for the present, Mr. Carter has an advantage.

Take as a starting point the fact that the heaviest criticism of Mr. Carter comes from his own party's political left, not from its center or right wing and not very much from Republicans, who have been too busy with their own family affairs to have had much time for Mr. Carter and his doings.

Who has been most severe in criticism of Mr. Carter from the very opening day of his presidency? Answer, the same elements who made up the political coalition which nominated George McGovern -- and dragged Mr. McGovern down to defeat by their own extravagances. The intellectuals of the left, the more extreme branch of the women's movement, the politically most active opponents of the Vietnam war -- they and their associates and allies all unite in disapproving of Mr. Carter.

George McGovern was the darling of the left. He never strayed from them and their causes. He never succeeded in breaking away from the embrace of the left. He never managed to appeal to the great moderate center of American politics.

The McGovern disaster in 1972 was the reverse side of the Barry Goldwater disaster of 1964. The reason was identical. Senator Goldwater was as much the darling of the Republican right as Senator McGovern was of the Democratic Party's left. Senator Goldwater didn't even try to break away from his party's right wing. He remained its loyal and even eager spokesman, right down to voting day.

Both the McGovern and the Goldwater disasters were avoidable. Both men could have done better had they recognized that their basic constituencies, which nominated them, had nowhere else to go. George McGovern's left-wing activists and intellectual liberals could never have voted for Richard Nixon. Barry Goldwater's devoted suburbanites in their station wagons at their country clubs could never have voted for such a commoner as Lyndon Johnson. Both could have pitched their final election campaigns toward the center, and won moderate votes from the center, without any loss of their basic and unlosable constituencies.

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President Carter understands that lesson of the 1964 and 1972 campaigns. Blacks and organized labor are the two biggest and most important of the basic constituencies of the Democratic Party. Both would have preferred Senator Kennedy as their candidate. The senator from Massachusetts voices their hopes and recognizes their disappointments. He caters to those disappointments and hopes. He is their man. But that means that if the Democrats were to nominate him he might well suffer the same fate as Messrs. McGovern and Goldwater. Could he have moved successfully toward the center between nomination and election?

Mr. Carter is as far toward center as a man can be in the Democratic Party and still get a presidential nomination. He is not a man of the left wing either in rhetoric or in action. Which explains the preference of intellectual liberals, of blacks, and of organized labor for Mr. Kennedy. But how many blacks, how many working men, and how many beneficiaries of social security, are going to choose Mr. Reagan over Mr. Carter on election day?

Once Mr. Reagan has the Republican nomination sewed up he can afford to reach for the center, even to try to attract some elements of organized labor, and some blacks. He has nothing to lose. Can you imagine the country club set and those whose tax burdens seem unduly heavy voting for Mr. Carter? No. They would be unhappy if Mr. Reagan reached seriously for votes to the left of a Republican sense of where the center is located, but you can't imagine them voting for Mr. Carter. They might express bitterness at Mr. Reagan's betrayal of the true conservative faith (if it happens). They would not vote against him because of it.

So, come election day, the Democrats of the left are going to vote, if reluctantly, for Mr. Carter no matter how much they yearn for Senator Kennedy. And the Republicans of the right are going to vote for Mr. Reagan no matter how he might distress them by his political maneuvers between nomination and election day.

What will count therefore, and probably be decisive, is the race between Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan for votes in the center. Mr. Reagan's choice for a running mate will give us a clue to his understanding of the above. If he picks a person of the center, or someone with even a slight tinge of "liberalism," we will know that he intends to reach for those center votes. But if he picks another darling of the Republican right -- we will be able to assume that Mr. Carter will win.

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