Did Ronald Reagan's decisive victory give him and Congress a mandate to get the things done he promised in the campaign? Some analysts are dispensing the idea that in giving the President-elect such a landslide the voters were not so intent upon getting Reagan into the Oval Office as upon getting Jimmy Carter out of it. They conclude that the message which the election sent to Washington was not primarily a conservative message but was to a considerable degree an anti-Carter message.
There is a good deal of evidence that the Reagam mandate is real and that for the liberal Democrats to try to explain it away will tend to keep the party out in the cold that much longer.
There are several reasons why a reluctant vote for Reagan was a positive vote for change in national policies.
The fact that the President-elect won by a margin of 8 million votes -- 3 million more than Eisenhower's margin in 1952 -- means that many traditionally Democratic voters had to switch party allegiance, something they did not relish doing. In this connection a postelection New York Times-CBS poll showed that "only half of the voters say they liked the man they voted for." In other words they did not vote for Reagan because he was a personal favorite or hero, like Eisenhower. Rather, they voted overwhelmingly for the policies he was proposing despite the fact that he was not liked as a person.
That makes the mandate more ideological than personal.
It was in part this unusual circumstance that caused one interpretation of the New York Times-CBS survey to conclude that "Reagan was swept into office on a national wave of conservatism, especially on issues which affect the economy."
The election reflected much more than repudiation of President Carter. More revealing than Reagan's nationwide triumph -- industrial states, farm states, Pacific Coast states and virtually the entire South -- was the defeat of a long string of heretofore unbeatable Democratic liberal-New Deal senators, powerful and prestigious. Congress has been the impenetrable stronghold of NEw Deal liberalism for 44 of the last 48 years. But this year the Republicans captured the White House and the Senate and sliced the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives by more than half.
Some liberal Democrats are already reading the signs of the times. One such is the young Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, who is now preaching that if the Democratic Party does not show greater respect for the private sector of the economy there will be no good way to fuel social programs. He was asked whether 1980 was an ideological election: "Do you think this was a real conservative mandate as opposed to an anti-Carter mandate?" He came down on the side of political realism when he replied:
"Well, if this was not a conservative mandate, I don't know what is.To the extent you have ever had one in this country, I think this clearly was. It was not only losing the White House, but a virtual demolition of the liberal senators. You had cases not only where liberals were defeated by conservatives, but where moderates were defeated by conservatives. So I think the country clearly wanted a change. There was a perception that the Democrats had run out of steam and the voters were looking for something else."
A leader of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action put it this way: "We've been running the show for so long, I think we got ourselves painted as the defenders of the status quo."
Undoubtedly the election of 1980 was a vote to change the status quo and this is why it is a mandate for action which the still Democratic House of Representatives will resist at its political peril.
In my judgment this was not a sudden spasm of resentment against Mr. Carter; it was the culmination of a mounting conservative trend over a number of years.
Mr. Carter simply stood in the way of it. Mr. Reagan beckoned it.
At a luncheon with some 200 Republicans from both houses of Congress, the President-elect remarked: "We have a mandate."
I think he's right.