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What the Ballow Measures : Start of Post-Reagan Era Ends Realignment Dream

November 09, 1986|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of the American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

Dreams die hard. And great hopes of new political era-building die hardest of all. So Republicans are already at work trying to counter Tuesday's loss of Senate control with proclamations of their relative success in the House of Representatives and the notable addition of eight new governors to their current 16. But since the elections, it's become difficult to take their continuing realignment claims seriously.

Last week's message is that no great new conservative era lies on the horizon--in large part because so much of the more realistic portion of the conservative agenda has achieved fruition over the last decade and a half. Now, though, the Reagan Revolution is falling in the public-opinion charts, and if the President isn't exactly a lame duck, the Democrats' autumn guns have cost him a tailfull of pin feathers.

Control of the Senate, after all, was the GOP's only other federal-level beachhead; now it's gone. On Tuesday, the Democrats gained eight Senate seats to give them a 55-45 majority that should survive for the foreseeable future. With the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, the President's agenda is in trouble, all the more so because the electorate yawned at maintaining a GOP Senate for Ronald Reagan's sake. Farm-belt voters may be tired of hearing about America as the Shining City on the Hill when bankers are about to foreclose on the Little House on the Prairie, and rust-belt citizens can cringe at rhetorical uplift about "Morning Again in America" when it's twilight in the trade statistics. Certainly the voters' non-response to the President is hard to ignore. The public seems willing to let Reagan ride off into the electoral sunset. After he asked Americans to cast one more vote for the Gipper, turnout appears to have fallen to its lowest level since 1942.

Of course, it would be a delusion to overstate Tuesday's Senate results as a major rejection of the President. The principal dynamic was the famous "six-year itch" that colors Senate elections midway through the second term after a new party has swept to power in the White House and brought a host of new senators on its coattails. Usually some are second-raters, and in six years, when they have to run on their own, they bite the dust. However, the process is aggravated if voters have begun to be disillusioned with the Administration or its policies, and these attitudes were definitely visible in the 20 to 30 states suffering from regional or local economic dislocations.

Farm-belt unhappiness was most vivid in the victories of two Democratic populists--Kent Conrad and Thomas A. Daschle--for Senate seats in North and South Dakota. But lack of Washington exertion on behalf of troubled economic sectors was an issue from Maine shoe factories to Gulf Coast oil rigs and Pacific Northwest lumber yards. Indeed, in Louisiana, a state the GOP had confidently expected to capture, even the president of the Louisiana Assn. of Business and Industry acknowledged a painful political truth: The winning Democratic Senate nominee, John B. Breaux, had been able to convince local voters that Reagan Administration free-market economics and free-trade policies were partly responsible for Louisiana's plight. If the President and his advisers don't realize that such assessments were part of Tuesday's outcome, they should.

The Democrats, for their part, are now in a position to start originating and implementing ideas. And they may be just in time to benefit from an increasing public desire for more active Washington problem-solving. Other forms of that sentiment began to appear in many candidates' October campaigning about how they could get things done in Washington and use government more effectively than their opponents. Surveys found even Republicans moving in this direction. If the public truly is tiring of feel-good rhetoric and passive government, the Democrats' assumption of Senate leadership may not be the embarrassment some cynics feared. The party that nominated Walter F. Mondale in 1984 on a platform of reactionary liberalism may yet develop an appealing agenda for 1988.

Indeed, with the Republicans' 1981-86 hold on the Senate ending--a creative and responsible one by most measurements--a fair analogy can be made to the Woodrow Wilson era, when the Democrats held the Senate by narrow margins for six years and then lost it back to the Republicans. The shortfall of larger hopes left nothing but an interregnum. And that is what we have just seen--not the sort of great upheaval Reaganites claim is transforming American politics from the White House down to the courthouse.

True, Republican showings in the contests for the House of Representatives and 36 contested governorships were respectable. But that doesn't change the larger dynamic: What we are seeing is dealignment and the weakening of party loyalties, not a pro-Republican realignment.

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