Just one week after the 1980 presidential election, the Republican "New Right" and Democratic liberal left are girding for a fight over control of the electorate "center" in 1982 and for the rest of the decade.
The New right had the best of 1980's results, both sides say. But its liberal counterparts claim to have equivalent fund-raising potential and a stable voter bloc that will allow them to hold their own against an anticipated conservative assault.
For the short run, liberal groups pushing causes such as abortion, women's rights, and environmental issues are trimming operations, building war chests, and are freeing manpower and funds for legal and lobbying defenses for the next year or two.
The conservative New Right also is focusing on social issues, its leaders say. They are targeting another batch of liberal incumbents for 1982 (21 of 33 Senate seats contested are held by Democrats). But their longer-range goal is building a lasting conservative coalition of single-issue groups, leaders say.
The New Right and activist left each claim a little over 4 million money-donating supporters, which taken together equal about a 10th of the 82 million Americans who voted Nov. 4, or about 5 percent of the electorate.
These numbers of contributors could double in the next couple of years if Congress and the courts become the scenes of battles over individual rights issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, and the environment.
Some liberal activists see fund raising and educational appeals directed soon to moderate Protestant denominations to counter pressures from fundamentalist and Roman Catholic groups.
"From the New rights perspective, I'm going to be concerned more for the future, less for the short run," says Richard Viguerie, the key fund-raiser for New right organizations. "We've got to push for busing amendments, human life amendments, prayer amendments -- hit the social issues, the single issues. Economic issues like Kemp-Roth are just not sexy. We're trying to put together a coalition that will last long after the Reagan administration."
Likewise on the left, economic issues will not be a rallying point, says Roger Craver, whose firm is the chief direct-mail fund-raiser for the liberal side, representing Common Cause, women's rights, and pro-abortion groups, as well as candidates such as independent John Anderson and liberals John Culver of Iowa, and George McGovern of South Dakota.
"The fights on abortion and the environment will be very bitter," Mr. Craver says. "You let right move on abortion and you will see a million donors giving Busing is not an issue that will charge liberals up. And don't look for the liberal community to have innovative ideas for the economy. The liberals are the management class -- the stockbrokers, lawyers. They won't agree on economic issues.They do agree on social issues."
"The issue of reproductive rights, the economic rights of women have to be at the top of the new liberal agenda. Peripheral issues like gay rights, marijuana will get shelved," Carver says.
Both men agree that the conservatives have a leadership edge. Viguerie and his dozen or so New right spokesmen confer daily on political targets and strategy.
The left is more "pluralistic," both agree. "Civil libertarians believe a vociferous minority -- even right-wingers -- have a right to express their views ," Craver says. "The pluralism of the liberal community has to be more focused. We've had a 'Whole Earth Catalogue' of causes. Where we're behind is leadership. The New Right leadership consists of six people. You coldn't get a consensus among liberals in six months."
The left is hesitant about imitating the right's tactics by targeting conservative Senate and House members for the 1982 races.
"The right targeted people and ran negative campaigns," Craver says. "Up till now, the liberals have found this abhorrent. Whether they will in the future remains to be seen."
The liberals are counting on the federal court system as their chief line of defense against any congressional attack on social and environmental issues.
"The federal court system hasn't changed with the election," Craver says. "It will be the best help to the liberal. causes. The American Civil Liberties Union over the years has seen the cyclical nature of these things. Eisenhower gave us Earl Warren and the desegregation decisions. Nixon gave us the abortion amendment. Ironically, Truman gave us the Japanese dention."
Money was not the defeated liberals' chief problem in last week's elections, Craver claims. Liberal political action groups contributed to campaigns at least as much money as conservative sources.
"Our firm raised $18 million for politial action purposes, another $30 to $35 million for lobbying, the past year," Craver says. John Anderson raised $12 million from 220,000 donnors in seven months. A higher educational and personal earnings base gives the liberals a fund-raising edge during recessionary times, Craver says.
"The Democratic Party must be rebuilt. If it isn't, as the Anderson campaign sugests, a third force will develop to affect the political destiny of the other two parties."