|THE ELECTORATE IN 1999|
November 11, 1999
A new survey indicates a sort of "retro-politics" with the American people adopting a generally centrist philosophy. Following a discussion with Andrew Kohut, the NewsHour historians, joined by David Gergen, analyze where the American voters stand as the 2000 election approaches.
JIM LEHRER: Now, our electorate survey and to Andy Kohut of the Pew Center on the People and the Press. And then, for some historical perspective, to Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, and David Gergen, former senior official in the Nixon, Reagan and Clinton administrations.
|Examining the electorate|
Andy, you've just finished your annual survey of the electorate. First, explain the survey, how long you've been doing it, how you do it, and what its purpose is.
ANDREW KOHUT: Back in 1987, we started out surveying people's underlying political attitudes, their values, social, political and economic. And we've been tracking them ever since. And every four or five years, we do a major survey, in this case, 5,000 interviews, to get the lay of the land. What does the political landscape look like? And that's what we've just done. And we've found a very changed political landscape compared to the mid-1990's.
JIM LEHRER: Give us the overview - what you found.
ANDY KOHUT: We found more moderate attitudes, and not too surprisingly, we found more political moderates as a consequence. We have -
JIM LEHRER: Define moderate. What is a moderate and the way you use the word?
ANDREW KOHUT: Moderate in terms of attitudes, less hostility toward government, the American public hasn't fallen in love with big government, but they're not as concerned about it and angry about it as they were five years ago. There's a little less political cynicism even though Americans are still pretty cynical about politics. The public is more willing to see government do something about the problems of needy people. There's-- there's less appetite for political change. There is a toning down of most of the political attitudes that have animated politics from 1992 to 1999, largely because there's more financial satisfaction and also because the public has a sense that there's been some accomplishment and they don't feel nearly as pressured as they did earlier, either by real economic discomfort or worries about such discomfort.
JIM LEHRER: What about -- Are there any overarching issues that touch this big new moderation?
ANDREW KOHUT: There are no overarching issues. There is education. There is keeping the economy strong and entitlements and all the things we've heard about. But if there's one overarching issue, it's Bill Clinton and whether -- how to respond to continuity and whether people are going to vote in favor of the times given displeasure with Bill Clinton and also still Newt Gingrich and the ways in which he's colored attitudes toward Republican national leadership. So, the issues are almost less the issues and more these major political figures which have created big political change in our time.
JIM LEHRER: What about the moral health of the country, does that come through in this? Are people concerned about that, while they're happy with economics and other things?
ANDREW KOHUT: When we ask people what is the most important problem, moral concerns predominate - they don't predominate the way the economy did eight years ago, but a third of Americans say, we have some moral concerns. But when we ask people about the priorities for the next President, it's mostly conservative Republicans or populist Republicans who say moral issues should be number one. The moderates say it should be either health care or education or keeping the economy strong or entitlements. So, morality seems to be a great overarching concern, but it's difficult for people to see it in policy terms.
|My "mellow" Americans?|
JIM LEHRER: Okay. David Gergen, do you see from your perspective, a mellowing of the electorate that Andy does? Is mellowing the word?
DAVID GERGEN: I think mellowing is actually a very good word, Jim, maybe not in the same sense as we used it in the 60's to describe flower children, but in terms of what we see in the country at large, this rise of centrism, this rise of moderation, a desire to have both parties come more to the center and stop the bickering, stop the polarization and stop all the paralysis in Washington and get on with things, I think it's both what we sense about the electorate and also because this comes from Andy Kohut and from the Pew Foundation -- they are both very respected in this field of public opinion survey work -- I think it's extremely good news for what we can look forward to, both in the campaign and what follows.
JIM LEHRER: Good news, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely. It's practical, it's sensible, it's wise. And, as you say, it's toned down. And I think it's interesting. Jim, there's one figure that's not in Andy's wonderful poll. 77 percent of American college students today in a recent survey say they expect to be millionaires in their lifetime. Just think about that. There you are. We're happy, hey, it's going to be great tomorrow. Why am I worried? The absence of anger, absence of all the things we've gone through, Vietnam, Watergate, the impeachment -- one year ago tonight, we were waiting for the President to be impeached. So it's a practical sense - in the middle -- we're in the mushy middle in America. We're not in the extremes.
JIM LEHRER: Mushy middle, Doris, is that where we are?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: What I find most heartening is that the poll shows that people are feeling more generous, more compassionate, more tolerant toward homosexuals, toward different racial groups, toward immigrants, all of which suggests a more fundamental decency is showing itself. The only part of that that saddens me, is at the same time they say that, and they say government should help the needy and we should do more things for people, they have a fundamental boredom with Washington. They're not interested in political news. They're not watching the news the same way as before, which means there is a linkage missing. You know, when you look at the 1900's, or you look at the1960's, similar times where there was a progressive feeling, wanting to help people, compassion, people cared deeply about public issues. And they were active; they were out there marching, doing things. Right now, it's as if they are spectators, pleasantly viewing the American scene, feeling good about it, wanting to help people, but not realizing the connection between doing that and leaders that can mobilize their activism to get these things done.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, how do you see it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I've been groping for some way of understanding this in terms of looking for an earlier period that's like this, and there really is no period that's been like this in the century. I was thinking about the 1920's, another time with a big rich economy and not burning differences between the two parties -- same thing with the 1950's. But there was something true of those two decades that's very different from now. In the 1920's, Americans elected Presidents like Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover largely because they were exhausted with World War I and with what Woodrow Wilson had tried to do with progressive reform. They basically said, give us a breathing space. They said the same thing to Dwight Eisenhower when he was elected in 1952. They said, we have been through the Great Depression and World War, the beginning of the Cold War -- essentially do nothing during the 1950's to deal with social problems. And that was what Eisenhower responded to. The interesting thing is that we're now 30 years after the last big period of progressive reform which was LBJ and the Great Society, and I think one thing that may happen that's different now is that people are going to get ready to do things that are fundamental about issues like health, education, and poverty, because so much time has passed there is not that same sense of exhaustion.
|A new kind of activism?|
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Does your polling reflect that, that-- first of all, to Doris's point that the people seem to be turned off to government and yet there are opportunities to do things because of this - no? You're shaking your head.
ANDREW KOHUT: No. Absolutely. There's no question that people are more compassionate, are more willing to see the government take on social problems. But at the same time, they're more indifferent. You know, we did a poll back in September which found only 47 percent of the American public able to name Al Gore as a Democratic candidate. I mean, the American public and our news interest surveys, are not paying more attention to a two-party race than they were to a one-party race four years ago.
JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, how do you explain that?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I do think that there is this disengagement from politics that is a hangover from the past. Haynes said that 77 percent of American college students now think they might be millionaires. It's also true of those same college students that the voting rate among the young has fallen down from around 42 percent in presidential elections to around 30 (percent). So, there is that big gap now that exists between people who are optimistic about the future but are disengaged from politics. But I do think people are expressing themselves and their idealism in a different way, Jim. College students are volunteering in record numbers now. And also we just learned a few days ago that charitable giving in this country went up 16 percent in 1997, 1998 -- one of the biggest jumps we've ever seen. So that even as people think the government is not the best vehicle to get, they are interested in seeing social improvements. And I think if the right candidate can come along and stir the idealism of the country, it would be possible to begin rebuilding this link between say, the young and government - that there is a receptivity to government doing better. It's just that people are a little bit resigned to the fact that they are weary of what they have seen - all the bickering in Washington.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, how do you make the connection between what we've been talking about and a new President, not by name or anything like that, or by candidate, but what the folks are looking for?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think what David just said, the weariness with the past, all the anger, all the fighting, and they look at Washington, and they think it's irrelevant to their lives - except they know it's not - because there are things here that they know they need - that is health care if you're older -- or if you're younger. Those young people know - and I know - I teach, myself. And you talk to those students today, they know they're going to pay a terrible price. They don't expect to have Social Security benefits.
JIM LEHRER: They don't expect to have them?
HAYNES JOHNSON: They don't expect to have them. They don't think it's going to be there for them. They expect they're going to have to pay more in taxes for it. They know there's something fundamentally-- if someone can be practical and say here's how we're going to fix these things in the long term, I think there's a great opportunity, and that is, as Andy says, in the middle. That's pulling it across all the ideological -
JIM LEHRER: Don't attack people in the process, just tell me what you're going to do.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And how you can actually make it work in practical terms.
JIM LEHRER: Feel better, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think there is a readiness on the part of the people. Yes, I do feel better. I think what it's going to take is leaders able to mobilize those sentiments and have success. Suppose a new leader comes in, a new President, and one of these bills passes, that people feel it's really substantial, as opposed to the minor moves we've made in these last years. Success breeds success. I mean, Lyndon Johnson's first Civil Rights Act got him to do the second one on Voting Rights Act. Medicare gets you to do aid on education. It's like these muscles haven't been used by our citizens in a long time. They don't know success with government and feeling good about themselves when things are large and they contribute and they know they've done things that will stand the test of time, so, yeah, I feel optimistic that if something can go right with the next President, he starts out with some success, that success could breed more, and maybe we'll have another progressive era. It would be great.
|A new kind of leader|
JIM LEHRER: Michael, you've also studied presidential leadership and looking at this particular period. What kind of leadership - and based on what Andy has said - what kind of leadership would get the country to move in any direction, whether it's progressive, to use your term, or whatever term you want to use? How do you move this kind of electorate?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you have to have a leader who has what President Bush once called the "vision thing". And that is someone who says not what Eisenhower has said and what Warren Harding said which was, here we've got a rich country, everyone's happy and unified, let's do nothing, but instead, a leader who says, here we are with a surplus. This is a time that we can really attack basic problems of poverty and health care and education. That's what Theodore Roosevelt did in the first decade of the century. It's so interesting to look at the effect of TR becoming President in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. Had McKinley served, you would have had pretty much a status quo presidency, a lot of what we now think of progressive reform would never have happened. It was because Theodore Roosevelt saw the potential in our system and was willing to spend a lot to try to bring that out, that things changed.
JIM LEHRER: Andy, how do you read your survey in terms of what kind of President the people are looking for -- here again, not by name or by party or whatever? What would move these folks?
ANDREW KOHUT: What would move them...
JIM LEHRER: The 5,000 folks that you talked to.
ANDREW KOHUT: An absence of what's pushed them away. There is a willful disregard of what's going on. This isn't a matter of people just not paying attention. The public is fed up with two years of impeachment. And they're also fed up with what they see as a lot of intense partisan squabbling. We have an American public that is moving towards the middle. And we have political parties that - you know-- have their shotguns out. So what will move them will be some kind of leadership here which comes together. You know, we could have Republicans controlling both the House and the Congress and the White House or Democrats doing both. And that could possibly change this psychological gridlock that occurs in the minds of American public about Washington.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But David, isn't that going to be difficult, to lead people, no matter who the leader is, at a time when there's no crisis, because isn't crisis what breeds leadership or at least that's what way we see it as - see it in those terms at least?
DAVID GERGEN: Not always. It's often true, but to go back to Michael Beschloss's point, you know, Teddy Roosevelt came, and there was no crisis. He seized the country by its lapels and shook it and said, we've got to get move Pentagon.
JIM LEHRER: There was no problem there laying out there on the table that he had to deal with?
DAVID GERGEN: There was some concern about the trusts, about the fact that people seem to be losing controls -- and the average mutt - as Roosevelt called it - just wasn't being responded to properly -- but Roosevelt came in and just transformed the presidency. And he said, this is a large office and I can take it somewhere. He understood that the office could be larger. I think, Jim, remember a few years ago you went to Texas and had this conversation about a Character Above All -
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID GERGEN: -- and you had a series on public television about that. Many of the people here on the program participated.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Michael and Doris.
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly. And I think if you have a person with character and with vision and with passion, the country's ready to respond to that, who is going to bring to it -- this idealism on either side now. I think on both sides, some of the candidates are now competing for that. It's going to take a lot of political skill. But we could be on the edge of what we thought maybe Bill Clinton represented eight years ago but for a lot of reasons, that didn't happen -- not to the extent that we expected. I still think the country is ready for that.
JIM LEHRER: As they say on television, stay tuned. Doris, gentlemen, thank you very much.