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Shields, Phillips trade views on new political landscape; America still hungry for change, but confused about directions.

While 1992 may have been the "Year of Change," much of that change may not have been m specific "wants" as much as in the factors that fuel the hopes of the American political system. And the trends that were set in 1992 are likely to fuel the politics of 1994, 1996 and beyond, according to two national political commentators who spoke to NLC's Congress of Cities held last week in Orlando.

Kevin Phillips, the best-selling author of many political works and Mark Shields, a columnist and commentator for the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour presented their views of American political trends to the Saturday Plenary session at the Congress.

For Phillips, 1992 may mark the year of a significant splintering of the Amen can political system. And with that splintering, an end of the historical cyclical trend between the nation's two major parties may also be upon us, according to Phillips.

"American politics tends to be cyclical," Phillips told the delegates. He pointed to the Republican party's holding of the White House for 20 or 24 years between 1968 and the 1992 election as evidence of that trend. Prior to that period, Democrats held the White House for 26 out of 35 years, beginning in 1933.

Those cycles in the past have been marked by a sudden drop in one party's vote from one presidential election to another. From the 1964 presidential election to the 1968 election, the Democratic presidential vote dropped by 18 percent, Phillips said. From 1988 to 1992, the GOP vote dropped from 54 percent to 38 percent, he said.

Looking back from the years 2010 or 2020 we may "see 1992 as a watershed year leading to a looser cycle," Phillips said, with those long "generational" cycles replaced by cycles of four to eight years.

Part of that softer cycle may be evident in factors that should have made President Bill Clinton's successful bid for the White House highly unlikely. Americans don't usually elect someone President in that person's first run for that office and they don't elect their Presidents from small states, Phillips said.

Whether the Democrats and Clinton can rise from that softer base depends on the economy and other issues for 1994 and 1996, Phillips said, but he also sees a number of factors that lead to less than optimistic prospects.

The first is the 1993 elections, which he decribed as a "banner year" for the Republicans. Part of the reason for that success is that despite the President's "Perils of Pauline" successes in passing programs through the Congress, the President and his party are not hewing to the principle that you "have to pass things people want," Phillips said.

Clinton's programs can be too easily cast as "more taxes, more government and a globalization of the economy which does not give people a sense of job security" for the new administration to overcome "a sense of reticence" about this presidency, Phillips said.

Despite voter demand for such, Clinton's progress on reducing the deficit may also be hampered by the same sorts of reaction found in other "English-speaking nations," such as Great Britain, where even majority conservative governments have been unable politically to attack their "welfare state entitlements," many of which go to the middle class, Phillips said.

"Why should the people in the middle take it? They won't," Phillips told delegates. He pointed to recent Tory abandonment of any attempt to cut into British entititlements as evidence of the political difficulties involved in such an effort.

If a weak economy is added to the 1994 elections, Phillips predicted that the Republican Party may pick up as many as four seats in the U.S. Senate in that year's election and as many as twenty seats in the U.S. House.

In his comments Mark Shields agreed with Phillips that 1992 may be a watershed year in American politics, one which marks a profound change in the success of the Republican Party on the national level and the start of a search within the Democratic Party for a "sustaining coalition."

Not only did the GOP see an 16 percent drop in its presidential vote between the elections of 1988 and 1992, but it also saw a severe drop in its electoral vote strength, strength which made it possible for the Republicans to capture 78 percent of the nation's electoral vote from the 1968 to 1988 presidential elections.

That erosion came about in a vastly different fashion than when the nation swung from a Republican era in 1928 to a Democratic era in 1932. Between 1928 and 1932, the nation lost 55 percent of its Gross National Product (GNP), which resulted in one out of four heads of households in the United States without jobs.

Between 1988 and 1992, 92 percent of the jobs lost in the United States were lost in just ten states.

"In 1988, George Bush carried seven out of those 10 states. In 1992, Bill Clinton carried them all," Shields said.

Much of that Clinton success came not just from that loss of jobs, but from a "profound change in values" in the nation and the times which moved the nation away from the GOP's message, he said.

For the past twenty-five years, the Republican Party has been the party of strength and, since the fall of Saigon, the Democrats have been the party of weakness in matters of foreign policy and national defense, Shields said.

However since the Soviet collapse in 1989, "the old definition of strength doesn't work anymore," Shields said. Defense as a matter of strength, which the GOP relied on for its success, is now a matter of jobs and saving jobs at the local air base or weapons factory, not a matter of strength or "combative foreign policy," Shields said.

"In 1988, George Bush won Ronald Reagan's third term," Shields said.

But things changed when Americans began to increase their expectations of Bush on the heels of the nation's success in the Persian Gulf War, Shields said. And those increased expectations came at "the same time we were losing our optimism as a nation."

What wad missed by many leading Democrats in the beginning of the 1992 campaign was that Bush's strength was also his weakness, Shields said.

"What everyone missed," Shields said, "was that anyone who can get to 85 percent approval in the polls can also go to 10 percent. FDR and Ronald Reagan could never get to 85 percent because they stood for something. People knew that and a significant portion of voters would always oppose them. People didn't know what George Bush stood for."

What 1992 brought to American government and politics is accountability, according to Sheilds. Prior to democrats controlling both houses of the Congress and the Presidency, the American people were "treated to twelve year of Big-Time Wrestling," with both parties placing blame on the other for budgets and legislation.

"If hypocrisy were a felony, they would all have been doing hard time," Shields said.
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Title Annotation:columnist and commentator Mark Shields, author Kevin Phillips
Author:Mahoney, John K.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 13, 1993
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