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A Good Buy: Liberal Futures

This is a rising-tide election. The Dow industrials have pushed over the 6000 mark. Interest rates and unemployment are fairly stable and low. Housing sales in most markets are healthy, protecting owners' investments. The adage that all politics is local seems to have been flipped keel up.

In my town of Wellesley, Mass., the election is hard to find. The hottest issues are the razing of nice old houses and the building of half-million-dollar new houses, a function of rising land values, two-income households, and perceived stock market wealth. The building of three bridges over the commuter railbed and the redesign of the town's main street (Wellesley's segment of the Boston marathon) has disrupted traffic flows for more than two years.

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Wellesley has edged into the Democratic column in recent years. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank will be reelected. The Senate race between incumbent John Kerry, a Democrat and Yalie, and Gov. Bill Weld, Republican and Harvardman - both tall, articulate, and rich - is too close to call in Wellesley and overall in Massachusetts. And if Bill Clinton doesn't carry the Commonwealth, Ross Perot will be elected president.

Usually Massachusetts is campaigned against nationally by the Republicans. "M" comes after the "L" word, liberal, which follows the "K" word, Kennedy. In this election, "liberal" as a negative label has been nationalized, all but dropping the Massachusetts connection. Democrat Robert Torricelli is called "foolishly liberal" in his New Jersey Senate race. Democrat Paul Wellstone is called "embarrassingly liberal" in that other liberal "M" state, Minnesota.

It isn't just how liberal you are that counts against you, but also how little you can be trusted. For Clinton this means Whitewater, FBI files on Republicans, infidelity, and a short list of why Wellesley College alum Hillary can't be trusted either. Before Wednesday night's debate, voters gave Dole only a four-point edge in "moral leadership" in a Time/CNN poll, and Clinton a one-point edge in trustworthiness to "keep promises" - suggesting both men are caught in the general tide of low regard for elected leaders.

The trend among voters to look less to Washington for solutions and to associate Washington with "liberal" policy initiatives continues apace. But in this election, issues like Social Security and health-care payouts for seniors have a national context. So does immigration policy and the subsidy of prison building programs, which incumbents oddly like to brag about.

At the time of the Rep. Newt Gingrich-led blowout of the Democrats in 1994, I suggested it was a good time to buy Democratic futures. The origins of some large-scale shifts in House or Senate sway between the parties is often explainable not so much in current surface debate but in swings a decade or two earlier, with incumbents "graduating" in batches. The prevailing tide, in this case Democratic, has an accentuated effect.

I would still buy liberal futures today.

Immigration reform will have to make more productive use of this powerful demographic force - not try to cripple the future earning power of immigrants by stripping their children of education opportunities. Today's prison expansion will become known as America's shame. The opportunity to finance one's own retirement will require new initiatives to help earners create wealth. The steadily expanding population will make run-down city centers worth more, requiring access to housing and transportation for the less-than-wealthy. This will get argued out as the conservative correction runs its course.

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Where are those who crowed over the 1994 Gingrich revolution? In national elections, tides flow out as well as in.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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