Transition politics full of surprises

Watching the news unfold over the past week, I was reminded of a friend’s comment on the evening of February 17, following Bill Clinton’s first State of the Union Address. My friend, a Clinton political operative disappointed that the President had come down on the side of tax and spend rather than deficit reduction, said, “Bill Clinton is a transition president — a transition between old, Cold War politics and a new politics yet to be defined.”

Viewed that way, much of the political turmoil we are now seeing is a new politics struggling to be born.

Consider Ross Perot. After giving Bill Clinton a short honeymoon, Perot has been even more severe and more unrelenting in his assault on Clinton’s policies and character than Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. Result: A recent trial race pitting Perot against Clinton found that 44% would vote for Perot and 45% for Clinton — a virtual dead heat. The poll also shows that 14% of those who voted for Clinton last November would now vote for Perot, and 60% of the Bush voters would vote for Perot.

More importantly, Perot is building a formidable political machine, with chapters in each of the 435 congressional districts, a huge grassroots organization and, some say, a contributor base larger than that of the Democrat and Republican parties combined.

This untested political machine could wield considerable influence in the 1994 congressional elections and could support a presidential bid by Perot in 1996.

So, part of understanding the era of “transition politics” is to understand what Ross Perot is doing and to appreciate how he is doing it — a broad-based, grassroots, high tech approach that integrates “movement” politics with traditional electoral politics.

But other things are happening, too. For example, it is not altogether fanciful that America’s two largest cities — Los Angeles and New York — may soon be led by Republican mayors.

In Los Angeles, businessman-civic leader Richard Riordan, a Republican, is now favored by many analysts to beat Democrat Councilman Michael Woo in next week’s race to succeed Mayor Tom Bradley. Riordan is winning with no-nonsense, get-tough themes that are getting support across race and class line: more police, more investment, more jobs and more self-reliance. That’s one reason the Clinton administration has appointed Commerce secretary Ron Brown its California czar: If Riordan wins, the administration will have alternative channels for working with Democratic groups in California’s southland.

In New York City, Republican Rudolph Giuliani is challenging Democratic Mayor David Dinkins. For the first time in years, analysts give Republicans a fighting chance to win Gracie Mansion, the home of New York City’s chief executive.

And in Texas, Republican state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison has a commanding lead — nearly 20 points — over incumbent Democrat Bob Krueger in their June 5 race for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen.

This sampling is not a picture of politics as usual. It’s a picture, still blurry, of a new politics with new themes, new faces and new approaches to organization and communication that will affect us for a long time to come. Whether it will help us make things work remains to be seen.

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