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Conservative trend still strong despite recent GOP setbacks

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 1985



Washington

President Reagan and his fellow Republicans have been in a severe batting slump in the summer of 1985. The question being asked here now is: Has the King of Political Clout lost his swing? Analysts say ``no,'' even though a tough team of naysayers have taken the field against the President and his fellow Republicans.

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Admittedly, it's been a rough-'n-tumble season. Spring training got underway with the furor over the Bitburg cemetery visit -- a controversy that distracted the White House for weeks from the all-important budget debate. That was ``strike one.''

Then came a series of tough political pitches. South Africa. The deepening trade crisis with Japan. Rancor with Senate Republicans over budget cuts. The congressional election defeat in Texas. The GOP voter-registration drive that fell embarrassingly short. All were fouled into the upper decks: ``Strike two.''

Now we're nearing World Series time. The President is putting resin on his bat, digging in his spikes, and getting ready for the next pitch as Congress prepares to resume play in Washington. Will RR knock one over the fence, or will the King be whiffed?

A strikeout at this point would increase speculation that the Reagan brand of conservatism is ebbing. Republican talk of a party realignment would begin to look exaggerated. Analysts, however, say the current batting slump at the White House must be kept in perspective.

For example, there was the Democratic victory this summer in the Texas 1st Congressional District. Democrat Jim Chapman took 50.9 percent of the vote to thwart a strong bid by Republican Edd Hargett. Congressional Quarterly said the vote ``helps slow Republican momentum in Texas.''

But Richard Scammon, a leading elections specialist, says the event was widely misinterpreted. Mr. Scammon analyzed the past 82 years of voting in the Texas 1st, and found that Democrats had won every time with no less than 68 percent of the vote. This election represented a 17 percent drop from the norm. If other Southern districts move that much toward the Republicans in 1986, ``Tip O'Neill [the Democratic Speaker] will have lost the House,'' Scammon observes.

Furthermore, says Scammon, Democrats were able to cling to the Texas 1st only by being as conservative as Reagan. Democrat Chapman favored aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, opposed abortion, favored prayer in schools, and a lot of other things right out of the Republican handbook.

Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center, expands on Scammon's thesis. While some analysts talk of an ebbing of the conservative tide, says Mr. Ladd, the fact is that the US already has undergone a major political realignment. It's a fact of life. It's done. And Reagan led the way.

The realignment might not be strictly conservative, or Republican, but it is certainly very significant. Major social groups, especially Southern whites, are voting differently today than they did over the past 100 years.

``In the heyday of the New Deal era, you had the white South voting 80 percent Democratic. Now they are voting 30 percent Democratic. That's the largest single movement of a social group in American history,'' says Ladd. Such shifts have altered the balance of power between the parties. The New Deal is over, and we have entered a new age.

Ladd says that one factor confusing the debate about the present realignment is that many people expected the Republicans under Reagan to emerge as the new majority party, much as the Democrats did under Franklin D. Roosevelt. This realignment is different. The parties appear to be at approximate parity. And this situation, say Ladd and Scammon, could continue indefinitely. It's shaping up as a 26-inning game, says Scammon.

Perhaps the most important long-term change has been in the voters' political ideology, says Ladd. During the New Deal, politicians were consistently elected who supported larger and larger government. But no more. The whole idea that progress was associated with enlarging government is gone.

Even Democrats now talk of spending cuts. Programs are being moved back to states and communities. New programs get scant attention or support.

At the same time, voters still want government to do many things. The public hasn't turned against government, says Ladd, but it has become cautious. ``We still have a feeling that this whole thing is costing more than it has to,'' he says.

Quoting analyst Irving Kristol, Scammon says the new public ideology mixes something of both parties. He sums it up this way: ``What America wants is a conservative welfare state.''