Richard Richards, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, believes that "jobs will be the issue" of the 1982 midterm election and that, with forthcoming redistricting of House seats based on census changes, the GOP may capture the House of Representatives next year.
Democrats already are forming their own battle lines, with the likely consequence that President Reagan's appeal for mutually shared sacrifices will have long-term, nationwide political consequences.
The basic difference between the two parties, Mr. Richards told reporters at breakfast here on the eve of President Reagan's budget speech, is that Democrats want a system of more and more federal government, Republicans less and less federal government. He sees a major realignment in party strengths in the next 10 years with resurgent Republicans continuing gains in the West and South, and among blacks and Hispanics.
Richards, who got his job with a nudge from the President, indicated the direction of the party leadership: It will support nonpartisanship and equal sacrifice in the Reagan recovery program, but it will recognize that the administration's, and the party's, political future will turn on an improvement of economic conditions.
Reagan doesn't have too much time, Richards declared, because "the American people expect substantial progress and expect it reasonably soon."
Recent polls by the GOP show the public perception of the party is "better than in many years," the chairman says. In fact, it has jumped since the election, he says. The polls showed the party had a favorable rating of 57 percent at the time of the November election; it now is up to 64 percent.
Party concern now has turned to watching the redistricting maneuvers as a result of the 1980 census. Extra legal talent, political advice, and funds are available to state parties as legislatures redraw congressional district lines. The national party also has taken a far-reaching step in internal reorganization: Subordinate committees that used to deal with ethnic minorities have been merged into larger committees dealing with broader issues.
Neutral observers say it will be difficult for Republicans to win more seats in the US House next year, let alone capture a majority. Not since 1934 has a party that has just won the White House made gains in the House at midterm. A political "bounce back" normally occurs which aids the "out" party. In 1934, the one-exception in two generations, President Franklin Roosevelt's revolutionary New Deal was still rolling and Democrats made gains.
What this situation almost certainly means is a partisan battle that will go on for months, probably years.Both sides will claim the same goals -- economic recovery, smaller government, more jobs. But the battle will be over the details: How much should America pay to the unemployed, to the United Nations? Should it increase funds for an arms buildup or for food stamps?
It is hard to recall any Washington political situation that covered so broad a range except the New Deal. Roosevelt got action in the famous "100 days"; he had the Great Depression to spark it. Chairman Richards left unanswered what the Republican Party can do to aid President Reagan now.
Most feel things will turn on Reagan's ability to sidestep Congress and appeal directly to the public and whether he can make his program seem nonpartisan.