• U.S.

The Teflon President’s Teflon Coattails

17 minute read
Jacob V. Lamar Jr.

Ronald Reagan loves to speak of dreamers. Of Founding Fathers who dreamed of creating a free nation, of immigrants who came to America dreaming of a better life. Though he rarely says so explicitly, the President has entertained a grand vision of his own: to transform American politics. In his dream, the “Reagan revolution” that began six years ago would culminate in a massive political realignment, one that would make the Republicans the majority party and pull down the curtain on half a century of liberal government activism.

In pursuit of that goal, the President this fall traveled to 16 states, waging the most vigorous midterm campaign by a President ever in an effort to save the endangered class of Republican Senators he had carried into office in 1980. A vote for these candidates, he said over and over, was a vote to preserve the revolution. The voters, as much as they loved the messenger, seemed unmoved by the message. They trickled to the polls to pick and choose among the local personalities they found appealing. In most of the hotly contested races for control of the Senate, these turned out to be Democrats.

As Sherlock Holmes noted in the curious case of the dog that did not bark in the night, the most important deductions involve things that did not happen. The fact that voters did not make it a referendum on Reagan’s record indicated that his personal popularity does not transfer to his policies. The fact that they did not vote along party lines dispelled Republican hopes that certain regions and voting blocs would become part of a fundamental realignment from the Democrats to the G.O.P. The fact that national issues played little role was a sign that while voters may be concerned about such important subjects as Star Wars, U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, the failing farm economy and trade imbalances, there is no political polarization over these issues. In part because the election was not a referendum on Reagan, it turned out to be his most resounding political defeat since he lost the presidential nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. The Democrats scored a sweeping victory in the Senate, where they replaced a 53-to-47 Republican majority with a 55-to-45 majority of their own. The Teflon President seemed to have Teflon coattails: of the 16 Republican Senators who rode into office on the Reagan wave of 1980, only half were re-elected last week; only four ! Republican Senators won out of the 16 he had campaigned for since Labor Day.

The loss of the Senate was partly mitigated for the Republicans by a gain of eight governorships. Indeed, there was no overall partisan cast to the results. Democratic Senate candidates in the South and West showed surprising strength, but so did Republican gubernatorial candidates in the South. Nevertheless, by losing the Senate, Reagan and the Republicans lost the national political momentum they had been building during the 1980s.

As he addressed White House staff members and reporters in the Old Executive Office Building the day after the election, the President was characteristically putting a there-must-be-a-pony-in-here spin on things. Reagan stressed that Republican candidates in six Senate races had lost by a mere two points or less. “This is not the outcome we sought,” he conceded, “but our agenda remains unchanged, and I look forward to its attainment.” Presidential aides pointed to the G.O.P. gains in governorships and noted that the Republicans lost far fewer seats (five) in the House of Representatives than the White House party traditionally suffers in a midterm election.

With his ability to shape the public debate, Reagan may not become a lame duck in a traditional sense. Yet for the next two years he will face two houses of Congress that are solidly Democratic and will probably oppose most of his initiatives. “What happened this week creates a minority mentality for the Republicans and a majority mentality for the Democrats,” said G.O.P. Political Consultant Ed Rollins, the President’s first-term political adviser and ’84 campaign manager. “The Democrats will now be more aggressive, and we might be less so.”

On election night, the Democrats were already feeling their oats. Party leaders felt that a Democratic dawn was breaking after the long night of Reaganism. In the euphoria, the Democrats were prematurely celebrating their resurgence. “The voters have written a forward to a new book tonight,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk told a boisterous crowd at D.N.C. headquarters, “It’s called Election ’88 — The Great Democratic Comeback.”

Is this the end of an era? By recapturing the Senate, the Democrats feel they have begun to turn the tide of Reaganism, that they have wrested the terms of political debate from the conservatives. Yet the possibility that the Reagan revolution may have run out of steam raised an even more challenging question for the Democrats, a question they have not yet begun to answer: Do they have the right stuff to replace the President’s vision with a coherent and compelling one of their own?

Instead of presiding over a basic realignment of partisan loyalties similar to that which occurred under Franklin Roosevelt, one of the most popular Presidents in history will leave office with his party holding eight fewer Senate seats and probably 15 fewer House seats than it did when he came in. Instead of creating a loyal cadre of new Republican voters among blue-collar workers and the young, last week’s result demonstrated what analysts call “de-alignment,” an overall loosening of all party loyalties.

Indeed, the election produced a startling number of split tickets around the country. In New York, for instance, both Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato were re-elected by landslides. In South Carolina, incumbent Democratic Senator Ernest (“Fritz”) Hollings crushed his Republican challenger, while Republican Carroll Campbell trounced his Democratic rival for Governor; to make matters even more perplexing, the voters picked a Democratic Lieutenant Governor. In eleven states, voters chose Senators and Governors from different parties.

Reagan’s appeal and political clout have fundamentally changed political debate; few victorious candidates of either party campaigned for increased domestic spending or the neoisolationist foreign policy approach favored by many Democrats in the 1970s. ABC News exit polls showed that Reagan’s popularity remains astonishingly high; his positive approval rating is 62% to 38%. White House Political Director Mitchell Daniels noted that successful Democratic candidates “very wisely slipped every punch and ducked every engagement with the President.” Even in Louisiana, where Reagan’s policies were blamed for the statewide economic crisis wrought by the collapse of oil prices, Democratic Winner John Breaux declined to criticize the President. He diplomatically called Reagan a “very nice gentleman who gets bad advice.”

Given the lack of galvanizing issues, the personality and character of the individual candidates became overriding factors. One result was that a remarkable number of campaign ads were personal attacks, many of them quite venomous. The nature of the contests was particularly harmful for the G.O.P.’s class of ’80. Several of those freshman Senators were unknown and undistinguished candidates who squeaked into office on the night the Reagan revolution was born. This year most faced attractive Democrats who had years of experience in the House or held important local political posts. The Democrats won several key races by simply fielding more appealing contenders who knew how to exploit local issues.

The negative ads and dearth of big issues also prompted a lot of people to sit this one out. According to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, this year’s turnout was the lowest since 1942 for a midterm election — 37.3% of eligible voters — and the third lowest in history. “This was the most ugly and vacuous campaign in recent memory,” says he, “and the public responded accordingly.”

In some particularly close contests, the President may have turned off voters by attacking Democratic candidates by name. “The Republicans overdid it with Reagan,” says Orleans Parish Assessor Ken Carter, who backed Democrat Breaux. “He began to sound like just another politician.” In Missouri, former Republican Governor Christopher (“Kit”) Bond withdrew an ad in which Reagan warmly endorsed him. Bond feared that it would inspire anti-Reagan votes for his opponent.

The President may have been stung by the poor results of his stumping. When staffers greeted him with a sustained ovation at the Old Executive Office Building last week, Reagan quipped, “Based on my previous experience, I ought to quit right now.” Even though Reagan’s efforts did not preserve the Republican Senate majority, several of the more mediocre G.O.P. candidates would certainly have lost by larger margins if the President had not campaigned for them.

The most startling Democratic Senate triumphs came in the South. In Louisiana, Congressman W. Henson Moore had seemed a good bet to become the first Republican Senator to represent the state in this century, but Breaux closed in on him in the final weeks of campaigning. In Alabama and Georgia, class of ’80 Senators Jeremiah Denton and Mack Mattingly each blew enormous early leads and lost to Democratic Congressmen Richard Shelby and Wyche Fowler, respectively. North Carolina Republican Senator James Broyhill, who took over John East’s seat after East’s suicide last summer, was upset by Terry Sanford, the former Governor and Duke University president. The black vote may have been the deciding factor in these close contests. ABC News exit polls indicated that in each of the four states, more than 90% of the black voters chose the Democrats.

The one Southern Democratic triumph that surprised no one occurred in Florida, where the hapless Paula Hawkins, a first-term Republican who has compared herself to Joan of Arc, was clobbered by Governor Bob Graham, a fairly conservative Democrat who projects a more down-home image. Since summer, Hawkins had trailed by as much as 20 points in some polls.

The West was also a disappointment for the G.O.P. In California, Democratic Incumbent Alan Cranston, a probusiness liberal, narrowly defeated Republican Congressman Ed Zschau, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur for whom Reagan made three campaign appearances. In Washington, the President may have helped Brock Adams, Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Transportation, beat class of ’80 Republican Slade Gorton; on a Halloween campaign stop, Reagan refused to assure voters that a national nuclear-waste site would not be created in their state. Retiring Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, a Republican presidential hopeful, had to endure the embarrassment of seeing his handpicked, would-be successor, Jim Santini, lose to Democratic Congressman Harry Reid. By contrast, Colorado’s Gary Hart, who also retired from the Senate with an eye toward a presidential race, was replaced by his friend Tim Wirth, a bright neoliberal Democrat who has been a leader in pushing high-tech issues.

If Reagan’s policies were an issue anywhere, it was in the Midwestern heartland, where farmers have been facing rising foreclosures because of low prices, bad debts and depressed exports. In South Dakota, Democratic Congressman Tom Daschle focused his criticism of Senator Jim Abdnor on the freshman Republican’s support for Reagan’s 1985 farm bill. Kent Conrad, North Dakota’s Democratic state tax commissioner, used the same strategy against another class of ’80 incumbent, Mark Andrews. Both Democrats won narrow victories. Six other G.O.P. incumbents won in the Farmbelt, however, and Missouri’s Bond, who edged out Lieutenant Governor Harriett Woods, became the only Republican to pick up a Democratic Senate seat (Incumbent Thomas Eagleton is retiring).

In the East, two members of the class of ’80 — New York’s D’Amato and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter — swept to easy victories. Democrats picked up one seat in the region, that of retiring Maryland Republican Charles Mathias. Barbara Mikulski, a populist fighter who practically defines the word feisty, wiped out former Reagan Aide Linda Chavez.

Perhaps the toughest task before the new Senate majority will be speaking in a unified voice. There may be a skirmish for the soul of the party between the Kennedy-Cranston Old Guard and a neoliberal faction led by such Senators as Joe Biden of Delaware and Georgia’s Sam Nunn. The Democrats have historically been a party of competing factions. Sometimes, as when Southern segregationists of old were filibustering the civil rights legislation of their Northern colleagues, there has been open warfare. The struggle this time around will be more subdued.

The prospective new majority leader, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is a master of parliamentary strategy. But even back when Democrats ran the Senate, before 1981, Byrd was not a leader who could mold the party’s agenda or articulate it well in front of the cameras. For these reasons he faces a spirited challenge from J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, a bright and more telegenic moderate who feels that a majority leader should use his office as a “bully pulpit” for projecting Democratic values to the American people. A secret ballot will be held by the Democratic caucus next week, and although Democratic Senators say Byrd now seems ahead, Johnston pledges to continue his contest.

For the first time in his presidency, Ronald Reagan will be dealing with a Democratic Senate. Will he become more confrontational or more compromising? “The President must go about things in a more conciliatory fashion,” says White House Pollster Richard Wirthlin. “His proposals must be made in a focused, targeted way. It will be critical to take a few important goals and to drive them hard.” Some observers doubt that the Reaganauts, except perhaps for the President himself, have any great gift for the art of political compromise. Indeed, just about the only aide left in Reagan’s inner circle who is adept at handling Congress, Mitch Daniels, may leave the Administration soon. Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, says that with the exception of Daniels, “I don’t think there’s a single individual in the White House with a good understanding of how to work with Capitol Hill.”

While most of the President’s men are hopeful of molding new congressional coalitions, a vocal minority in the White House will probably urge the President not to give ground to the Democrats. Observes one hard-liner: “Congress, institutionally, is a very timid and frightened place if you force the issue.”

For their part, the Democrats are not likely to pick fights right after the 100th Congress convenes in January. They know all too well that if they disagree with Reagan on a key issue, the popular President can take his case to the American people. The Democrats will tread carefully to avoid getting blamed for unpopular revenue increases or budget decisions. “They’re in charge,” says White House Aide William Ball, “and they’re going to have to be accountable.” A.E.I.’s Ornstein believes that the new majority has learned some lessons from the past. “The Democrats will not want to be Mondale-ized on taxes,” says he. “They will not want to be Carter-ized on foreign policy.”

On fiscal issues the Democrats will probably introduce the sort of restrictive trade legislation that Reagan vetoed last year. Even though the trade deficit is declining, many Senate candidates tapped a vein of protectionist sentiment during the campaign this year, and are sure to push for higher tariffs and quotas on foreign manufactured products and textiles.

To make a dent in the burgeoning budget deficit, Congress must confront either the possibility of a tax increase sometime in the next two years or a loosening of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings noose. This could be the real test of whether the White House and the Democratic Congress will end up seeking compromise or confrontation. Reagan is sure to oppose any outright tax increase, just as he has done in the past. And the Democrats will be as wary as ever of being out front on the issue. But some package of spending cuts and revenue raising seems necessary.

Here Reagan has the upper hand in one sense: he is not seeking re-election, and with a Democratic Senate, he can cast blame more easily than when the Republicans were in control. So he could simply refuse to make any real compromises. But if he does that, his historic legacy will include not only more than doubling the national debt but also leaving office with deficits on the rise. The chance of striking some compromise is enhanced because Reagan will be dealing with two pragmatic and moderate Democrats: Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, the new chairman of the Finance Committee, and Florida’s Lawton Chiles, who will be taking over the Budget Committee.

The President will run into more opposition on defense spending. As the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Georgia’s Nunn will continue to be sympathetic to a strong military while casting a skeptical eye on major ; weapons programs. He will also be more involved in arms-control matters.

The Democrats may challenge the President’s stated intention to abrogate the unratified SALT II ceilings on strategic weapons. One way they may try to force a measure of compliance: by tacking requirements onto defense appropriations bills. Future requests for spending on the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative will also be subjected to more strings.

Rhode Island’s Claiborne Pell, new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will set up more thorough investigations into the Administration’s dealings in Central America. These could include probes on the way the CIA is funneling money to the contras and might result in stricter requirements that diplomatic efforts be part of any U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. A Democratic- dominated committee, especially one with members as outspoken as Delaware’s Biden, is likely to debate the President’s policies far more vigorously than the Republican-controlled panel headed by Richard Lugar.

Reagan could be on a collision course with the new Senate Judiciary Committee. Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy, the man conservatives love to hate, opted to take over leadership of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, so the Judiciary Committee chairmanship will fall to Biden. Under Democratic rule, the panel will inevitably give the President a difficult time on judicial appointments. In the past year, even with a Republican majority, the committee helped defeat the district-court nomination of right-wing Ideologue Jefferson Sessions and waged tough fights against the nominations of Daniel Manion to the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court and William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice of the U.S. Moreover, the Judiciary Committee deals with such matters as civil rights, abortion and school prayer. Any new initiative by Attorney General Edwin Meese on those social issues is bound to hit a roadblock with the new panel, and Meese’s chances of being confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, should Reagan want to appoint him, are probably nil.

In his postelection address and again on the radio Saturday, Reagan mentioned the need for further reforms in the budget process, in particular one that would give him a long-desired line-item veto over specific provisions of a spending bill. Given the new Senate lineup, this is now unlikely.

But as his opponents have learned time and again, it is foolish to underestimate Reagan’s power to shape political events. That remains true despite last week’s results. Still, the election was a clear reminder that the Reagan era is coming to its inevitable end, that the Great Communicator will not always carry the day, that U.S. voters are already casting around for new leaders. “The electorate is ready for some change, the country is ready to move,” says Democratic Pollster Peter Hart. “What the voters seem to be saying is that they’d like to see some new faces, new times.” Will this result in another turning of the political tide? That depends on whether the Democrats can present an alternative agenda that takes into account the huge changes Reagan has wrought in the nature of the American policy debate.

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