The Washington Times

One day in May, the American electorate woke up to find itself worried that the nation is on the wrong track.

What happened, exactly? Well, it’s hard to say “right track” as the answer people had been giving pollsters for years now, and why not? The peace and prosperity of the 1990s, whatever their origins, are hard to argue with. How low is unemployment supposed to fall, how high is economic growth supposed to be, how benevolent should the international scene be?

The papers this Memorial Day weekend brought the news that the U.S. Navy would forgo further tests of a new sonar system because it might be disorienting to or otherwise harm whales and other forms of marine life. And indeed, who could argue with this decision? In truth, we can have all the security we need and happy whales, too. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the American Spectator magazine did a brisk trade in T-shirts and bumper stickers emblazoned with the legend, “NUKE THE WHALES.” Spirited conservatives found in three short words a perfect jape at the excessive sentiment of the time: the misplaced priority on “saving the whales” -when human freedom was in peril, the urge for unilateral disarmament amounting to surrender in response to the fear of nuclear war. Nowadays, with so little else seemingly at stake, even the Navy has concluded that it would be churlish not to take the well-being of the whales into consideration. One might be cruel to whales or tolerate cruelty to them out of necessity, but not gratuitously. Such is the extent of our power these days that the agenda of the Humane Society has become part and parcel of the American national security agenda, and this is not ridiculous.

So it was that when pollsters came knocking at the door of the American “likely voter” – he would rise from his apolitical slumber, gaze upon the peace and plenty, happy people and happy whales alike, then mumble “right track” – and go back to sleep. Until May 2000, that is, when the bipartisan Battleground poll revealed a sharp shift in the direction of “wrong track” – which is now outpolling “right track” 49-39.

This does not appear to be a product of sudden volatility in the Nasdaq nor of concerns about the Fed’s decision to ratchet up interest rates at 50 basis-point intervals rather than 25. Nor does it appear to be the product of anxiety about the collapse of so many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, as Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas note, it can be attributed entirely to the spreading sentiment that “restoring moral values” is the top issue the nation faces (bigger, even, than the much-pandered-about “improving education.”) And as it happens, the “moral values” and “wrong track” crowd lean rather predictably Republican, which perhaps accounts for George W. Bush’s currently strong showing against Al Gore.

Why now? No one knows. Nor is it obvious exactly what people mean by “restoring moral values,” what they want politicians to do in response to this concern. But it has emerged as the issue on which the November election now hinges. Put bluntly, one would have expected peace and prosperity to benefit the incumbent Democrats’ hold on the White House. Indeed, this would be typical. As The Washington Post noted last week, all the professors’ models say that Al Gore should win on the strength of the economy he inherits. Certainly that’s the hope that has kept animating the Gore campaign through its recent period of difficulties.

If you’re betting on election outcomes, you will make money over time betting the prosperity issue. It is quite possible that the sudden appearance of “wrong track”-ism is not a matter of the electorate suddenly getting serious and cottoning on to its well-founded worries, but rather is just something that a general sense of disengagement and ennui will also occasionally spit out.

But we have been going down the peace and prosperity track at top speed for quite some time, and voters used to think it was the right track but now think it is the wrong track. Did someone throw a switch? Could someone switch it back? Because if people really have decided, notwithstanding current conditions, that we are on the wrong track, that will be a political novelty of the first order and require a major rethinking of what motivates voters when they go to the polls.