Can the Democrats retire Ronald Reagan in November? If their voter registration drives among women, minorities and students succeed, the chances are good. Historically, the larger the voter turnout (it was only 52% of the eligible voters in 1980), the more likely will be a Republican defeat.
But getting more voters registered and voting is more than a mechanical matter. Programs and issues which differentiate the Democratic Presidential candidate from Ronald Reagan are needed to motivate the voters. At this early time in the Presidential primary season, the candidates are missing the issues boat.
Arms control and reducing the huge budget deficit are very important subjects for any campaign. But numerous polls have shown that these headline issues paradoxically change the minds of few regular voters and impel few non-voters to vote. What the Democrats need to remember is their own history of success over the Republicans which meant drawing the lines on abuse of power.
To illustrate this point, I jotted down a list of topics much on peoples’ minds but little on the Presidential candidates’ current agendas. They are raw areas of widely perceived injustice that would make Ronald Reagan’s campaign very vulnerable.
- Utility rates — natural gas, electric and telephone. Pollsters are shaking their heads in wonderment as to why no Democrat is running against Reagan’s surrender to these monopolies. Far too many households are paying 15% to 25% of their income for utilities. Consumers’ anger registers high on the pollsters’ surveys.
- Health care costs. In the past Democrats have scored heavily on this one. The U.S. is still the last western country without a universal health insurance system and the most afflicted western nation when it comes to controlling the surging prices of drugs, hospitals and physicians. Ronald Reagan, comfortable with his own socialized government health plan, has achieved nothing here.
- Toxic contamination of water supplies and communities. At Love Canal in New York, there were no liberals and no conservatives. There were only victims of toxic chemicals especially affecting the children there. There are over 45,000 toxic waste dumps in the country. Many are seeping into groundwater which supplies millions of people with their drinking water. Other chemicals poison soil, building materials, fisheries and entire communities such as in Times Beach, Missouri. If any politicians doubt the deep feeling of revulsion over toxics in America today, just read the local newspapers. Ronald Reagan has spent three years trying to cripple the environmental protection laws and their enforcement.
- The worker issue. Apart from the unemployment rate, the Democrats seem to have neglected Mr. Reagan’s scuttling of worker health and safety programs and his repeated preference for corporate demands over worker needs. In areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan, blue-collar workers are ready for a new President , who gives them clear choices over the present regime. Those workers are the swing vote in those states.
- The big business issue. This one has won many elections for Democrats starting with FDR. Giant business is swallowing up companies at a record rate. Nine of the ten largest mergers in U.S. history have occurred under the do-nothing Reagan Administration. Big business is exporting jobs, demanding government bailouts, obtaining tax loopholes, mistreating small business, crushing unions and defrauding consumers. The documentation for these abuses is daily — before the Congress, in our courts and reported in the press. Mr. Reagan does not care. The Democrats should.
- The big government issue. Here is one the Democrats can turn against Reagan’s rhetoric. Has an American government ever been a bigger deficit spender, ever been more secretive, ever been more opposed to citizens participating in its proceedings, ever been more insensitive to the weak, and more reflective of, by and for General Motors, Exxon and Dupont. Proposing this brand of populism can appeal to conservatives and progressives.
- The freedom issue. For people to be free, they need civil rights and civil liberties and the enforcement of those laws. Mr. Reagan uses the word “freedom” frequently in his speeches, but his government has done more to harm civil liberties and ignore civil rights enforcement than any Administration since the nineteen twenties. Most people like equal opportunities; they do not like a lie-detector society, a country subject to government snooping and censorship.
The Democrats will not win over a smiling Reagan by throwing generalities at his record. They should tap the ample veins of neglect, cruelty and abuse layered throughout his three years in office.
Primary campaigns do seem to invite candidates to brand themselves with one or two issues or slogans. For Cranston it is nuclear arms control; for Gary Hart it is projecting “newness”, whatever that means. That may be modern campaigning, patterned after the selling of soap or cosmetics. But it is riot the kind of political campaigning that gets citizens involved and energized. Frontrunner Walter Mondale needs to rethink his strategy — it may work for the primaries; but it is sure to come on heavy waters during the stretch drive to November.