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Stability and Change: a Tossup

THE November election is being framed in the dynamic of change versus stability. Because these themes are of inherently equal weight, the election is likely to be close.

This is so despite Democrat Bill Clinton's current 30-plus-point lead in the polls. The last time the Democrats won the White House, in 1976, the theme of change had been in their favor. Both candidates, Georgia's Jimmy Carter and Michigan's Jerry Ford, were well liked. Coming out of the Democratic convention, Carter led Ford by 30-plus points. That lead dwindled steadily until election day. Had the election been a few days later Ford might have won.

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The media are responsibly pointing out the ephemeral nature of the opinion surveys, particularly in the short pause between the party conventions. The test of Bush's strength will be shown in how, starting with next week's GOP convention, he can close the gap. The most telling measures will start coming in after Labor Day, after the summer's diversions.

If Bush were to try to frame the election between change and not-change, he would lose. Stability is not not-change. It takes a longer view. It points to the strengths of the country, its achievements, its ability to absorb new peoples, new technology, the shocks of foreign competition - the capacity to ride out change.

What are the changes going on today? The most significant, says management guru Peter Drucker, is structural change that has already occurred - the growth in higher education and women's entry into the work force. The realization that education and an independent or second paycheck for women has been absorbed in barely staying even economically is frustrating. A new video documentary, "Fast Food Women," captures women's disappointment well.

The US Postal Service's work force reduction of 30,000 workers - a whole small city-full - is but the latest in a steady downsizing of business and government operations. The computer revolution, sped by the steady lowering of prices and technology advances, is doing to the workplace what the tractor did to the farm after World War II. A tremendous exodus then occurred. Industry relocated from the Midwest to the West and South, and from the cities into the suburbs. With obvious consequences, whites made the transition from rural to urban/suburban America more easily than minorities.

The Clinton ticket is picking up the New South theme of the Carter days. The Democrats are attracting minorities and women, Bush a majority of white males as did Ford. Ford began a revival of respect for the White House after the Watergate-Vietnam years. Jimmy Carter further buried the imperial presidency - some would say too well. Carter's big achievements were the brokering of a Middle East peace, which set in place Iran's politically devastating hostage ordeal, and the restoration of a racially integr ated South to political authority. Ford's and Carter's achievements were permanent, beyond voter review.

George Bush's most crucial political decision has been to stick with the Reagan conservative orthodoxy of 12 years ago. It was actually 14 years ago, in the spring of 1978, that the so-called Cantril series of opinion questions showed that Americans were expecting their futures to look worse than their present or past situations. In 1979, Carter's people were calling this "malaise." The country felt stuck. It elected Reagan, who blamed the government and not the public's mood for how things were.

The issue then was not a demand for ideological or policy change; it was for a change in perceived national performance. Americans have high expectations. They spend so much on education because they think they can improve things.

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The poorest stability argument for Bush to use would be to make Clinton out as unstable. This was the 1988 approach on Dukakis. It is poor because it portrays Bush as a Jekyll and Hyde; this destabilizes Bush's own image in the way that Carter revealed an unflattering complexity of character in 1980.

Bush has not yet lost the election.

Americans are uneasy. Many are angry with frustration. They care less about how big government is than they do about its just sitting there, an oaf. They think less that things are bad than that things should be better.

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