Presidential Contest Uncovers Disillusion
CAMPAIGN '92 has become the year of insurgency. Deep voter anger, especially among middle-class Americans, has roiled the political waters.
Fifty-two members of Congress, a record number, are retiring. Another 60 or 70 could lose their seats. President Bush's popularity has slumped. Protest candidates, such as Jerry Brown and Patrick Buchanan, get votes big enough to scare the establishment.
Looking for a common thread in all this, Democratic analyst Bob Beckel says the "two most potent forces in politics" are at work this year: "fear and anger."
Republican Party chairman Richard Bond told reporters at a breakfast this week that the public worries about "a lack of credibility" in government.
Experts say public discontent has grown steadily, and finally bubbled over in 1992. The economy gets the blame. Voters see jobs being exported, cities gripped by crime, taxes up, government debt rising to $4 trillion.
The public's view: Washington has struck out. The depth of disgust is seen most clearly in the presidential campaign. Insurgent candidates like Mr. Brown, Mr. Buchanan, and even the soft-spoken Paul Tsongas draw cheers from voters. Mr. Brown, written off six months ago, surprised even himself with victories for his "We, the People" campaign in Colorado, Maine, Connecticut, and elsewhere.
Buchanan, a conservative populist, jolted the White House with his powerful showings in New Hampshire and Georgia. He confided this week that there was one fleeting moment in New Hampshire when he actually thought Bush could be whipped.
Now comes the ultimate protest candidate, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. He threatens to shoot it out with both parties. Early polls give him more than 20 percent of the vote, nearly equal to Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
Journalist and author William Greider says there is a unifying force that runs through all of these protest campaigns, whether they are ideologically on the left (Brown), the right (Buchanan), or somewhere in the middle, like former Senator Tsongas, and perhaps Mr. Perot.
"I think the insurgencies this year are reflecting the genuine anger that's out there," Mr. Greider says. "They didn't create it.... This has been building for 15 or 20 years."
The partial success of Brown and Buchanan, Greider says, shows that the status quo is not invulnerable. But he says that really changing things will require a bottom-up effort.
Large numbers of Americans must get involved at the grass roots. Greider's newest book, "Who Will Tell the People: the Betrayal of American Democracy," will be published May 4 by Simon & Schuster.
Bay Buchanan, Patrick's sister and campaign chairman, sees similarities between the various protest campaigns. She recalls that while in Michigan last month, she was in a TV studio with Democrat Brown. She listened with surprise as he spoke. "As he was talking, I said to myself, I would swear that was Pat Buchanan if I didn't know the voice. [Brown's message was] 'America first. It's time to take care of our own people.' "
Ms. Buchanan says Perot, Brown, and Buchanan are all tapping into two things this year. "One is understanding the American workers, their needs, and what is happening to them today."
Second, they recognize that government policies show "a real lack of compassion and understanding toward the everyday American," she says. "The president and Congress are busy taking care of themselves and setting policies which are not helping American businesses and American workers."
At the same time, Ms. Buchanan says this government has no trouble handing out aid to foreign governments, even as Americans are crying for help.
She speaks highly of Brown's slogan - "Take Back America" - which is much like Buchanan's "America First." She says it clearly is time to take back America "from the regulators and Congress and the bureaucrats. Let's make it ours again. People feel that these guys, Congress and the White House, are totally out of touch with what they need. They don't trust them, and they're not doing anything to help their problems, to even address them."
Tsongas also reflects some of this populist, anti-Washington fervor, even though he once served as a United States senator. After he pulled out of the race, he told a group of businessmen: "There is a sense among the American people that somehow the system is not working."
To make it work, Tsongas favors a "hard-choice, pro-economic growth government." The country is ready for that, he insists. He says: "People have been confronted with very hard facts. They're worried about their future.... They see the United States in [long-term] economic decline."
Using that message, Tsongas won the Democratic, white-collar vote.
But the "hard choices" theme didn't go over well with blue-collar and minority voters, for whom times are already tough enough.
Meanwhile, exit polls show that Brown's message resonated with more than 70 percent of Democratic voters, who said they agreed with it. But he failed to convince them that he was the ideal messenger. As for Buchanan, he was never able to overcome Bush's advantages as the sitting president.
Only Perot remains untested. The big question: Will he be able to carry the angry cry of insurgency all the way to the Oval Office?