WASHINGTON -- As he often did, Ronald Reagan crystallized a common intuition into a continental thought when in 1980 he asked voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. Surely voters have often made, without articulating, such judgments on the eve of presidential elections.
But when national traumas have occurred since the previous election, Reagan's question is inapposite. It would have sounded odd in 1864, when more than three years of civil war had intervened. Or in 1944, when the nation again re-elected a president, even though it would have been peculiar to ask whether people were better off than they had been in 1940.
In both of those bloodsoaked years Americans were arguably better off than they had been four years earlier, because irrepressible conflicts had at last been joined and were being won. Nevertheless, the ``better off'' question could not have neatly framed those elections, and cannot frame this year's.
However, John Kerry's selection of John Edwards suggests an itch to frame it that way. The most liberal senator's choice of the senator tied with two others as the second-most liberal (as measured by the nonpartisan National Journal) has produced a ticket of Washington-centric liberalism reminiscent of only the 1984 Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket, which lost 49 states.
This year the ``better off'' framing makes sense only if you believe, as Edwards' ``two nations'' rhetoric suggests that he does, that even with the nation at war, and after 10 quarters of economic expansion, many millions of voters in this affluent society will vote on the basis of economic resentments.
Perhaps the selection of Edwards expresses Kerry's desire to outsource, as it were, the nonsense part of his campaign. Edwards can talk economic foolishness for the constituency hungry for that -- the Democratic base -- while Kerry talks sense, as he understands it, about other matters.
The high liberalism quotient of the Kerry-Edwards ticket delights Republican frightmongers. But a Kerry win might not mean marked changes in either domestic or foreign policy.
Kerry says that as president he would repeal President Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy. Republicans say Kerry would pack the higher courts with liberal judges. But both sides are forgetting Congress -- and the most important change in governance in a generation. The change is the elevation, by both parties, to quasiconstitutional status of the Senate rule regarding cloture.