Atlantic City, N.J. — It was amazing, the talk here at the national governors' conference. One has become well aware of the growing confidence among Republicans that their time has come, but it was still somewhat of a shock to hear how supremely confident many Republicans have become.
From Republican governors and members of their staffs there were sanguine comments like: "This is our generation." "We have the Democrats on the run, not just for now but for years to come." "The conservative trend will be around for years."
A correspondent who has been attending such governors' conferences since the early 1950s still finds it difficult to grasp what has happened, really quite suddenly, to the political scene. For so many years there was a constant theme at these gatherings, implicit if not uttered: the liberal approach was the one that assured national progress. It seemed to both observers of and participants in American politics that the country was wedded to building up the federal government and to increasing federal spending as the means of solving domestic problems.
This concept was so dominant and longstanding that it came to be viewed as something that would be here forever -- like the Washington Star.
And now the muchly admired Star has set. And, so it seems, the liberal approach, born with the New Deal and greatly extended since Roosevelt, is on the decline. Could it be that, years from now, Reagan will be referred to as the first of a long line of conservative presidents?
Much of the confidence expressed by Republican governors is directed toward the elections of 1982. They fully expect the GOP surge that narrowed the Democratic governorship lead to four will continue and give the GOP the majority of state chief executives at this conference's postelection gathering.
These Republicans have little anxiety that their optimistic view will be blasted by a slip in the economy. And they were bolstered by Reagan representatives at last week's conference, who were unveiling results of a Richard Wirthlin poll which shows the public is going to be exceedingly patient with the President.
Wirthlin, Reagan's pollster, has found that a significant number of voters will wait 18 months before judging the Reagan economic thrust a success or failure. That judgment, it seems, would go beyond the 1982 elections.
Wirthlin's polling also indicated that many Americans, perhaps a substantial majority, have permanently "bought" Reagan's conservative, less-spending, tax-cutting philosophy.
Wirthlin finds a pervasive feeling that the nation for too long has clung to a reliance on big government. Additionally, according to Wirthlin, many Americans who may not fully subscribe to the Reagan philosophy will be slow to move to another approach simply because they have lost faith in the New Deal, big-spending way of handling problems. He says these people feel they have no alternative.
Among Democratic governors there is evidence of much of the same kind of "metooism" that Republicans expressed during the many years when liberal philosophy was dominant. Most of the 27 Democratic governors here seemed quite content with Reagan arresting the flow of power (and spending) to the federal government. So they are, for the most part, subscribing to Reagan federalism -- which is a basic tenet in what the President calls his conservative renaissance.
So it may be that an increasing number of Democrats will be running as conservatives -- perhaps, particularly in the South, "outconservativing" their Republican opponents.
House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois told a group of reporters at breakfast the other day that several Democratic congressmen had already approached him about possibly switching parties. And other GOP leaders, both here and in Washington, see the possiblity of a decided trend in such party switching after next year's election -- enough to ensure Republicans taking over the House, as well as holding onto the Senate.
The Republicans see this me-tooism as a compliment, a tacit acknowledgement by Democrats that the Republicans are on the right track.
So it is that the Republicans are fairly chortling today, speaking confidently of their new day, and forecasting that they will be dominating the national political scene for years to come.