If the Reagan Revolution is not dead, it surely has been staggered by Tuesday's decisive victory by Democrats in the U.S. Senate elections.
President Reagan gamely says that he will fight on for his agenda but wants to put the election behind us and looks forward to bipartisan cooperation in the 100th Congress. Those two desires are not necessarily compatible.
His offer of cooperation will mean little unless he is willing to swallow the harsh words of his campaign rhetoric and offer compromise on such critical issues as the budget and taxes, aid to the contras in Nicaragua, farm assistance and health care. Up until now, he has been particularly reluctant to yield anything until it was clear that he could not get his way. The White House must critically reassess that strategy now.
Democrats may not be so quick to put behind them an election campaign in which the President actively and personally sought their defeat, accusing them of weakening national security and virtually destroying the American economy. Senators like California's Alan Cranston will not lightly brush off remarks such as Reagan's claim that Cranston "plays fast and loose with the lives of those who protect us."
There will be varying and conflicting analyses of the 1986 election results in the days ahead. But the Democrats' feat of turning a 47-53 deficit into a 55-45 majority is no fluke. In many cases the Democrats fielded better candidates. While there was no single overriding national issue, Democrats succeeded in states troubled by weak economies, farm recession or depression, and the trade deficit. There is evidence, particularly in the West, that protection of the environment was an important factor in Democratic victories. And as hard as he tried, the President could not insulate GOP candidates with the personal Reagan magic.
Another conclusion must be that American voters have lost their fascination with the agenda of the religious right, which helped so many Republicans defeat liberal Democratic veterans in the 1980 Reagan landslide on the basis of biting issues such as abortion and prayer in schools. Many of those same Republicans were sent packing on Tuesday.
Victory is not without its price. Democrats now have the responsibility of developing a coherent agenda and demonstrating that active government is better for the country than an ideological crusade to get government off our backs. On occasion, the Democrats may need to enlist Republican support for veto overrides if they hope for real achievement, rather than deadlock with a President armed and ready with the veto pen.
Democrats must resist the temptation to rush through legislation aimed primarily at enhancing their image for a 1988 takeover of the White House. One example would be restrictive and punitive trade legislation that would only invite retaliation from our trading partners.
All the elements are present for a rancorous and contentious two years of Congress hunkered down in the Capitol and Reagan bunkered in the White House. But there also is an opportunity for them to meet somewhere in between. The public interest clearly rests with the latter course.