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Recession, not arms control, as the key to 1988

BOLD as it might seem to predict that arms control will be only a minor factor in next year's presidential voting, that's the lesson of United States electoral history. Should a book exist anywhere entitled ``Disarmament as a Factor in 20th-Century US Presidential Elections,'' it's bound to be a thin volume. From 1922's Naval Limitation Treaty right down to Richard Nixon's 1972-74 arms control efforts and Jimmy Carter's 1979 SALT accord, the actual voting-pattern influence of arms control ``breakthroughs'' and disarmament negotiations has been negligible - almost untrackable. Nor is 1987's intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) diplomacy likely to prove an exception. As a partial precedent, bear in mind how the nuclear-freeze issue of the early 1980s, despite high-voltage enthusiasm and brave forecasts from the left, turned out to be electorally unimportant. The Reagan administration's 1987-88 missile reduction hopes and blueprints could easily fall into the same category. Absent a shooting war or the threat of one, domestic issues - social or cultural, but typically economic - invariably dominate the public's presidential selection psychology. Election-day voting patterns are the key to this interpretation. Opinion poll measurements can be misleading, because voters will sometimes cite the arms race as the top national issue, or link their presidential choice to disarmament as an elevated-seeming rationale. Yet it almost never winds up as a key to actual presidential ballot-box behavior.

Something else usually is - the economy. You might never know it from press fascination with arms control (to say nothing of candidate philandering or plagiarism), but the 20th-century electoral record is simple and clear: Opposition Democrats have never taken the White House away from the Republicans without a major recession (or worse) either during the election year or within the preceding two years. Since 1900, new Democratic presidents have terminated GOP Oval Office occupancy in only four elections - 1912, 1932, 1960, and 1976. Two came amid economic downturns (1932 and 1960), and the others occurred shortly after substantial slumps. True, the 1912 contest also saw the Republicans weakened by a bad party split, but part of the die had been cast two years earlier when economic trauma caused large Republican losses in the 1910 midterm congressional elections.

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In fact, major prior midterm election losses keyed to economic unrest had almost always been a good predictor of imminent GOP loss of the presidency. The Republican midterm drubbings of 1910, 1930, 1958, and 1974 were all followed by GOP loss of the White House two years later. The losses of 1922 were the only false signal.

Looking back at 1986, however, it's a little confusing whether the midterms provided any reliable indicator for 1988. On one hand, last year's two-tier economy - painful distress and economic weakness in farm, energy, steel, timber, mining, and textile areas - was a central factor in the Republicans' loss of eight seats and party control in the Senate. But party losses in the House of Representatives were small enough (five seats) to call the election's basic significance into question.

Even so, if it's not quite clear where the economy was last year, and if it's even less clear where it'll be 13 months hence, the 1988 importance of the next recession's timing can hardly be overstated. If Democrats have needed an economic downturn to eject the Republicans from the White House, the GOP has been virtually invulnerable in prosperous periods. Consider the presidential election results when times were good and midterm election losses had been relatively light two years earlier - a category including 1904, 1908, 1928, 1956, 1972, and 1984. In each case, the GOP held the White House by large margins. If 1988 sees continued prosperity, then GOP orators might widely rhetoricize about arms control, but benign economic circumstances letting them move debate elsewhere will have been critical.

Which leads me back to the coming year. If 1986 economic ambiguity was merely a transient dislocation now already working its way out of the system, then 1988 should be a good year for both the economy and the Republican Party. But if the two-tier economy of 1986 was a troubled signal of imbalance and greater dangers yet to come, then it's possible the 1983-87 recovery will not last through next November. And absent ongoing recovery, the odds against the Republicans will lengthen dramatically. Fortunate Democrats would begin to confront another of the climate changes that have given them critical 20th-century opportunities to boot the Grand Old Party out of the White House.

In short, for all that the press is obliged to give serious analytical weight to a wide range of 1988 political subjects, history suggests that the key yardstick to watch is the timing of the next recession. Bluntly put, the attention US voters pay to esoteric arms control diplomacy will be directly linked to the time they don't have to spend worrying about lost paychecks, mortgage foreclosures, or shutdowns of savings-and-loan institutions.

Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report.

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