WASHINGTON — The early returns Tuesday night from the 1986 midterm election, like the campaign tactics that preceded them, pointed up a major challenge to Democrats and Republicans alike: As the focus shifts to the 1988 presidential campaign, both parties have failed to develop the compelling national messages they need to help win the White House and govern the country afterward.
Party leaders themselves conceded that such overall themes, which distinguish parties and candidates in voters' minds and enlist their loyalties, were starkly absent this year.
"I think this campaign has not been ennobling and enlightening. There's been more smoke probably than hope," Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. admitted.
'People Deserve Better'
"The American people deserve better," Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. said.
By adopting the featureless, often negative, tactics that characterized the 1986 campaign, political leaders of both parties defaulted on a potentially valuable opportunity. They failed to use this year's races to develop the ideas they will need to woo voters in the post-Reagan era--the kinds of themes that Ronald Reagan himself and before him his hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt, expounded so successfully.
"You can run a midterm election as a collection of localisms and a series of mudslingings," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Stephen Hess, referring to the character of the 1986 campaign. "But you cannot run a presidential campaign as a disparate collection of disjointed issues."
Midterm elections tend to stress local issues and personalities. Yet the 1986 campaign appeared to have even less connection with national problems than other recent midterm contests.
In 1978, for example, when the Democrats controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress, the Republican Party called for sharp cuts in federal income tax rates. That effort, echoed and re-echoed two years later by Reagan and Republican candidates across the land, helped pave the way for the GOP takeover of the White House and the Senate in 1980--and for the tax cuts that were the early centerpiece of the so-called Reagan revolution.
Political Metaphor Missing
By 1986, many Republican candidates seemed worried about the consequences of the tax cuts they had supported, but they seemed to have no new political metaphor to replace the image of the meat ax that Reagan has applied to the federal budget.
"I think the Republicans are as nervous and as uncertain as the Democrats," said Thomas Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Assn. "They believe that various economic problems are going to come back to haunt them."
The Democrats have their own difficulties. In the 1982 midterms--with the nation struggling through a severe recession--they sought to build their House and Senate campaigns around the issue of "fairness," a motto which helped them recapture 26 House seats from the Republicans.
But afterward party leaders were told that a series of in-depth "focus" interviews with groups of voters indicated that the average citizen thought of "fairness" as a synonym for government spending to aid minorities and the poor. In other words, the Democrats seemed to have given fairness a bad name.
This year--with the economy generally in better shape than it was in 1982--that particular word seemed to have been dropped from the Democratic campaign vocabulary. Unable to find a replacement, Democrats instead waged a series of guerrilla skirmishes, adjusting their rhetoric from left to right, from high to low to match the tactical situations of the various campaigns.
Seen as Personal Attack
Thus in North Carolina, where Democrats hoped to pick up one of the four Republican seats they needed to capture the Senate, Republican Sen. James T. Broyhill criticized Democratic challenger Terry Sanford on defense spending. Sanford, taking that criticism as an attack on his patriotism, wondered aloud why Broyhill had not served in the military. (Broyhill had to explain that he suffered from rheumatic fever as a child.)
Sanford apparently got the better of the exchange because CBS projected him as the winner early in the evening.
While some would-be policy makers in the Democratic Party's liberal wing talked among themselves about the national ideological significance of having the Democrats recapture the Senate, individual Democratic candidates usually stressed to the voters only the local benefits that might be gained from such a transfer in power.
"If Democrats have control of the Senate then Lawton Chiles (Florida's senior senator, and a Democrat) will be chairman of the Senate Budget Committee," pointed out Florida Gov. Bob Graham, projected by all three networks soon after the polls closed Tuesday as the winner in his campaign against Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins. "That's (the) most important senatorial position a Floridian has held in modern history."