In Orlando, home to Florida’s Disney World and the Magic Kingdom, a crowd had gathered at the Church Street Market, a trendy cobblestone re-creation of an oldtime town square, looking for another kind of magic—the political variety. Up on a makeshift stage, Arkansas Gov. William Clinton was talking about the momentous opportunity voters face in this year’s presidential race. But at the back of the rally, Robert Zylkowski, a chef at Disney World, crossed his tattooed arms and voiced distinct disenchantment with the choices before him on this week’s southern primary ballot. In 1988, he had voted for George Bush. But with the recession slashing tourism and jobs in the land of Mickey Mouse, he vowed never to do that again. Said Zylkowski: “I think
Bush lost sight of what’s going on in this country.” He also dismissed Bush’s Republican challenger, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, as “just blowin’ smoke.”
But Zylkowski said that he found neither of the two Democratic frontrunners any more alluring. An exmarine, he still harbored doubts about Clinton’s possible draft evasion during the Vietnam War and about the health of former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, who claims to have recovered completely from cancer of the lymph nodes. “It’s kind of weird,” said Zylkowski. “I still don’t see anybody out there who I can vote for.” In fact, as the campaign for the White House swings north to the March 17 Rust Belt primaries in Illinois and Michigan, Zylkowski summed up the country’s frustration. The first presidential election of the post-Cold War era once promised a chance to chart a bold new American destiny. But polls now indicate that an angry electorate has looked over the candidates—and registered a resounding lack of enthusiasm. Said Karlyn Keene, a polling expert at Washington’s pro-business American Enterprise Institute: “There is no one candidate who has captured the public imagination.”
Voter disenchantment was the clearest message emerging from three primaries held early last week. According to Washington Post exit polls after the Maryland ballot, half of the Democratic voters expressed reservations about the candidate of their choice. And with Bush’s approval rating at a record low of 40 per cent from a post-Gulf War high of 92 per cent, one-third of Republicans reported that they wanted “to shake things up.” That figure
corresponded to the 36 per cent of the Republican vote that Buchanan, running for political office for the first time, won in Georgia. The protest vote also helps to explain Buchanan’s capture of 30 per cent of the vote in Maryland and Colorado, where he had spent almost no time campaigning. So prevalent was the sense of disaffection with all the candidates that when Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey ended his
foundering campaign for the Democratic nomination last week, he commented that he had considered changing his name to “Bob Uncommitted.” And the New York City-based liberal weekly The Nation ran a tongue-in-cheek editorial hailing the “strongest candidate in the race—his name is None of the Above.”
The discontent arises at a time when both parties seem racked by what one analyst termed a “political nervous breakdown.” Buchanan has portrayed his right-wing challenge to Bush as an ideological battle for the soul of the Republican party. But as in other primaries, two-thirds of those who voted for him in Maryland last week acknowledged that they did so in order to send the President a message about his poor handling of the economy. And
with most analysts predicting that Bush will be renominated at the Republican convention in August, Buchanan’s continuing assaults may only serve to leave the party bitterly divided.
For Bush, the greatest threat comes not from Buchanan, but from the stagnating economy—and the electorate’s plummeting confidence in his ability to manage it. After a decade of polls showing that voters put greater trust in Republicans than Democrats to handle the country’s financial fate, that trend suddenly reversed in January. Said Keene: “People are ultimately going to decide this election on who can better manage the economy—and the Republicans are losing that issue right now. That’s the biggest change this year.”
As a result, Democrats could be expected to be euphoric. But instead, disenchantment with
the party’s front-runners, Clinton and Tsongas, is rife. Said Robert Borosage, of Washington’s liberal Institute for Policy Studies: “Nobody’s excited and nobody thinks these guys can win. The haunting feeling people have is that the Democrats may be about to blow it again.” Both Clinton and Tsongas began the campaign by positioning themselves to appeal to the party’s right wing, preaching a message of economic conservatism that repudiated traditional Democratic dogma. That approach alienated many voters in the party’s labor and liberal wings. But as Tsongas’s ardently pro-business platform has caught on, Clinton has re-tailored his rhetoric to appeal to the Democrats’ blue-collar base. Said Borosage: “Clinton is faced with this guy who’s even more conservative than he is. He has turned into the populist candidate by default.”
Polls show that most liberals say that they would grudgingly accept Clinton as the Democratic nominee. But they express concern that, already wounded by allegations of womanizing, he could be fatally damaged if there is another hint of scandal—or, as Jeffrey Faux, an economist at Washington’s liberal Economic Policy Institute, put it, “if another high heels drops out of the sky.” But Faux cautioned that the Democrats’ key union
supporters would rebel against the prospect of Tsongas as their standard-bearer. Declared Faux: “Then there’s going to have to be a moment of truth in the party. And it could get very messy.”
Some Democrats still whisper wishfully of drafting phantom candidates or of a white knight riding to the party’s rescue at the convention in New York in July. But if both parties fail to shake their lacklustre image, the likeliest result will be that, in a country that prides itself on having brought democracy to the former Soviet empire, the lowest percentage of Americans in history may bother to exercise their right to vote.
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