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Voters may overlook the liberal label

In 1984 Walter Mondale, trailing Ronald Reagan, chose as his running mate an Italian-American Catholic woman. Reagan carried Italian-Americans, Catholics and women. Mondale carried Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Geraldine Ferraro carried on.

For several years the former three-term congresswoman from Queens represented "the left" on CNN's Crossfire. Now she is favored to win the nomination to run against Sen. Al D'Amato, who was re-elected in 1992 with just 49 percent of the vote.

She is a liberal. He seems to stand foursquare for whatever this morning's focus group endorsed. (Of late he has been vigorously opposed to breast cancer and Swiss bankers who exploited Holocaust victims.) He might win a fourth term _ a New York Post poll has him 12 points ahead _ by following Ferraro's long "paper trail," the transcripts of all those Crossfire programs. He can scour them for quotes to fuel this year's smash-mouth campaign theme. If history is any guide, that theme will be some variant of "Gerry, you're liberal."

And New York's Democratic Party is in disarray. Democrats have no strong candidate to run against Gov. George Pataki, who is so confident he seems to be running for the 2000 Republican vice presidential nomination, or something higher.

Last week he vetoed $1.6-billion in spending and borrowing, being especially hard on college professors' salaries and school construction. His parsimony (as parsimony is understood in New York: his budget is 6.9 percent larger than last year's, and 17 percent above what the state was spending when he became governor in 1995) is being construed as an attempt to make conservatives around the country swoon. (A Republican convention will not easily swoon over even a skinflint who supports Roe vs. Wade.)

Pataki will have to use a truck scale to weigh his campaign funds, so he will be able to afford to help his mentor, D'Amato, by maximizing the Republican turnout upstate. D'Amato, too, will have truckloads of money, as befits the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. So how can Ferraro think she can win?

She can hope the forces that defeated the Mondale-Ferraro ticket in 1984 have, paradoxically, made liberalism marketable again. What Reagan sowed, Mondale's running mate might reap.

Today's humming economy, the real author of the balanced federal budget, extends the almost uninterrupted economic expansion that began when Reagan's tax cuts ignited an economy from which the Federal Reserve had wrung inflation. That expansion was in its robust infancy when Reagan ran his "Morning in America" campaign in 1984.

The deficits of the 1980s were in part a result of "conservatism without tears" _ without serious cuts in domestic spending. Those deficits set the nation's political conversation for the 1990s: a balanced budget became a bipartisan standard of virtue. Now comes "liberalism without annoyances."

Ferraro's agenda calls for federal funding for 100,000 more teachers. She says that reducing class size is "absolutely essential." Since 1950 the average class size has declined from more than 30 to 22 without notably better results. She favors more federal funding for the construction and wiring of schools. And more for health care for children. And so on.

However, she "has no interest in raising taxes." Economic growth will generate the revenues, particularly if the surplus is used not just to "save" Social Security but to reduce debt service costs by paying down the national debt. And she favors cutting defense, which she says is "a quarter of the budget." (Actually, it is 15 percent of the budget.)

Already polls show that the Republican Party has lost its advantage over the Democratic Party on the issue of taxation. Now, if liberal candidates can seem plausible promising substantial enrichments of the government's menu of services without any enlargements of deficits or taxes, what damage is done by calling them liberals?

The end of the Cold War ended the Republican advantage regarding national security. The end, albeit temporary, of deficits might draw the fangs of Republicans regarding "big government." For most Americans, opposition to big government is merely a rhetorical tic, not a matter of principle, and they actually like lots of government if it is paid for by someone else, such as "the rich" or smokers.

A Ferraro-D'Amato race would test whether "liberal" has lost its sting as an epithet.

Washington Post Writers Group