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The Pull of Political Tides

THE estuaries and inlets along the Maine coast were flooded in the morning, as we drove for several hours to the promontory at Port Clyde. Propane gas tanks and plastic milk crates were stacked at the end of the pier, for delivery to islands. Light floated out on the calm ocean, and in the afternoon it illuminated the yellows and browns of the fall leaves. By then the tide had ebbed. Returning, we stopped by a cove: Seaweed covered the rocks, and the still-draining-clam beds stretched hundreds of yards i nto the bay.

There were mostly Ross Perot posters to be seen Down East, even as we passed George Bush's Kennebunkport.

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It struck me how enormous are the natural tides, geological and political.

No matter who wins the Nov. 3 election, the gravitational pulls of moon, Earth, sun, and whatever else is out there, with their rotations, will pull and release the Earth's waters. It was thus long before the Indians lived here inconspicuously, and before the visible ironworks, scrabble farming, and retail store outlets of modern Maine.

American politics also performs to enormous forces. Justice, equality, religious freedom, privacy and other individual rights, the vote - a remarkable cluster of values, principles, laws, and institutions which we perceive as the Constitution and branches of government similarly represent an extraordinary societal energy.

Laws describe the ways forces work.

Elections are the means by which citizens can act to bring government back into conformance with the fundamental values and expectations they hold for government.

Perot's appeal is to common sense. This is attractive to many Americans. Perot's apparent thin skin seems, to them, in keeping with his directness.

Perot, of course, does not represent either of the two modern political movements in America, the Republican and Democratic parties. The falling tide of confidence in Republican leadership on the economy has sapped Bush's standing; the tide's shift in Democrat Bill Clinton's direction is temporary. In American leadership, power is not personal. It flows with the times - even eventually from family political dynasties.

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The American political landscape has changed during the past dozen years of Republican leadership. A child who started school in 1981 will be graduated having seen none but Reagan's and Bush's pictures in their classrooms. This long run, building a base among the young, was expected to start a new GOP era; it did achieve a kind of parity between the two national parties.

The population's shift to the Sun Belt has given states like Florida and California substantially more congressional seats and electoral votes after the last census. This was expected to enhance the Republicans' base. Offset by the countertrend of the population everywhere tending to think more alike, it has not done so.

A Bush election loss may have been set at the August Houston convention, which gave full voice to the party's hard right. If so, this may have prepared the party better for 1996, when the right will not be able to complain of having been ignored in '92 and moderates will feel emboldened. In any event, times have changed where women voters are concerned, as women have taken on more responsibility for their own lives and a greater leadership role in their community. We're not where we should be yet on this . But the discussion has changed, as politicians are learning at a cost.

The other major change in this election is the ubiquity of public-opinion testing. Everyone now knows what once only campaign insiders knew about how candidates are doing. If Perot should win Nov. 3, not only would this be surprising, but no one has a clue what his arrival would mean to the institutions in Washington.

Bush may not have a winning margin but he still attracts a large number of voters. If apparent signs are wrong and he wins, he may have to recast himself as a domestic activist.

Elected, either Clinton would be held to his deficit-cutting promise or he would walk away from it, as Reagan did his initial spending-ceiling demand. This would affect Clinton's trust rating for a second term.

Derived power flows not only in the White House but everywhere in Washington, including Congress and the judiciary and the lobbying offices.

But the source of political energy is not in today's actors. It emanates from a historical national consciousness of how things should go.

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