WASHINGTON — EVEN the headiest days of the Reagan administration, with Republicans running the Senate, were never like this.
For liberals - that is, those who believe a strong government should protect people from the perils and predations of private economic power - these are bleak times.
Consternation is running high among advocates for the poor, the environment, and civil rights. When Gary Bass, who monitors federal regulations protecting everything from drinking water to workplace safety, called a strategy meeting among public-interest groups recently, 120 organizations showed up, four times the expected turnout. He had to rent a larger room.
The prospect of change in welfare, and in safety and environmental regulations, is far more fundamental and imminent than in 1981, when the Reagan administration brought a new level of conservatism to Washington.
While President Reagan took actions that aroused massive opposition from the left, especially environmentalists, much of the GOP agenda in Congress today would sharply limit by law the very ability of government to issue regulations.
While Mr. Reagan cut welfare programs to focus aid more narrowly on the most needy, ``now the focus has shifted to whether government should help a family even if it is truly needy,'' says Mark Greenberg, attorney for the Center on Law and Social Policy here, which researches and advocates welfare support for the poor.
``The threat to our environmental safety net has never been as real as it is today since 1980-81,'' says Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club.
Not only did voters opt overwhelmingly for Republicans at both the federal and state level. Not only are Republicans increasingly conservative. But on some key liberal concerns, it is also not clear which side the Democratic Clinton administration is on.
``The president needs to stand for something,'' says Mr. Bass, director of OMB Watch here, which monitors the federal-rule-vetting White House Office of Management and Budget. ``He needs to take a position,'' even if it is on the other side, he says.
The first question is how to read the antigovernment message of the top-to-bottom GOP landslide on Nov. 8. ``Was this a vote against the government providing help for poor people?'' asks Mr. Greenberg. ``Or was this a vote that government programs are ineffective?'' Or as Mr. Bass puts it: ``Do you want to dismantle government or make it better?''
Cut the state
As the political left reads the GOP ``Contract With America,'' the list of promises that will become the House's agenda next year, the Republican Congress is opting for dismantling government. The contract includes steps such as cutting off all welfare benefits to unwed mothers under age 21, unless they move into a more structured environment such as proposed group homes.
Other proposals would submit any proposed rule or regulation to review of what it would cost private or public entities to follow it and cap the total costs that can be levied per year through regulation. Workplace-safety rules, for example, cost businesses money. Safe-drinking-water standards cost local governments money.
The leverage of liberals, or progressives, on these matters has suddenly collapsed.
The longtime committee and subcommittee chairmen in the House and Senate, the committee staff members who did much of the actual research and drafting of laws - these were often the liberal watchdogs of Washington. They worked closely with the federal-agency bureaucrats who wrote many of the regulations that enforced laws and entitlements as presidents came and went.
They are now packing their belongings and moving to smaller quarters or leaving Capitol Hill altogether.
Public opinion has not changed much for many years on liberal goals, notes Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center, which does opinion surveys. The shift is not away from liberal goals, but from liberal methods - government power.
Views on gun control, abortion, and the social safety net have held fairly steady, says Mr. Kohut. Support for policies such as affirmative action or comparable-worth pay for women have eroded somewhat, he says, ``but the big change is in the lack of confidence in government.''
The left mobilized a broad front in 1980 against the Reagan administration. Reagan came from what liberals saw as the ``unthinkable right-wing fringe,'' says Gary Dorrien at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, a writer on political ideology. Congress now looks much more like Reagan, and the right wing is much further right. And the left has not yet showed signs of mobilizing for a strong progressive government.
The strategy for liberals now is to let the conservative Republicans roll out their policy proposals and to make it clear just how painful those proposals would be.
``Republicans have persuaded people that they have a lot of easy answers,'' says Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. Now that Republicans in Congress need to produce actual policies, he says, people will begin to see that their answers are not so easy.
``We have to remind people that government does a lot of things that they like. Once [the Republicans] start to make cuts, people are going to see that.''