A conservative tide is moving in America -- but one likely to be of short duration. This is a major conclusion from a Monitor survey of 526 political scholars at the recent American Political Science Association convention in New York, Sept. 3 to 6.
Other findings from this plumbing of current American political though include:
* A major realignment of US political parties -- a shift of majority power from democrats to Republicans -- is not under way. Rather, a "dealignment" -- a weakening of party structure and loosening of voter ties -- is the dominant political trend of the times.
* President Reagan scores high marks for his quick comman of the Washington political scene and of Congress. But he gets low grades for the quality of his programs. And his key goals like balancing the budget are greeted with sharp skepticism.
* Reagan falls short of comparison with Franklin Delano Rossevelt, the all-around most admired president of recent times. Instead, he is likened most to Calvin Coolidge -- a comparison Reagan himself has invited. The 1920s GOP president was known more for his Yankee granite personality than his performance.
The Monitor's 50-question survey was intended as a timely appraisal -- eight months into the Reagan administration, and after its first initiatives have been set in place -- of the main political trends and issues of the moment, as seen by a large number of active professional scholars.
Over 2,500 of the APSA's 7,00 members attended the Labor Day conference.
Overall, the political experts who reponded to the survey approve Reagan more as a person than for his performance in office.
Only 31 percent approve Reagan's "handling of his job as President," while 69 percent disapprove. At the same time, a 52 percent majority of the political scholars say they approve of him as a person. The general public also has a more favorable impression of Reagan as a person, giving him an 80 percent approval mark as a person, and 59 percent approval for performance, in the August Gallup poll.
By party, the political scholars in the sample break down into 10 percent Republican, 61 percent Democrat, 22 percent independent, and 6 percent other. By philosophy, they identify themselves as 15 percent conservative, 12 percent middle of the road, 39 percent moderately liberal, and 35 percent very liberal. Reagan, predictably, gets more favorable reviews from conservative and middle-of-the-road scholars.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is by far the man for Reagan to beat among recent presidents, the survey shows.
FDR gets 54 percent of their vote for the "best on domestic affairs," with Lyndon Johnson a sturdy 31 percent and no other recent president above 6 percent. FDR wins again as "best on foreign affairs," with 28 percent followed by Harry S. Truman at 18 percent, and Richard M. Nixon 17 percent.
The "least able to get things done" tag is pinned inescapably on Jimmy Carter (63 percent), with Gerald Ford the only other contender (21 percent). The "worst overall" title among recent presidents goes to Richard Nixon (60 percent) , with Carter trailing (22 percent).
"Best overall" is again FDR, with 69 percent. Truman trails by a mile at 8 percent. Among conservatives, FDR is narrowly edged by Eisenhower. But among Republicans and all other categories FDR leads.
This rating of presidents shows surprisingly little standing for John F. Kennedy among American political scholars, whereas among the general public JFK rates a close second to Roosevelt, on domestic affairs, and to Nixon on foreign affairs.
Only 8 percent of the political scholars think Reagan will become "one of the best" of presidents, 26 percent think he will be "better than most," 30 percent "not as good as most," and 36 percent "worse than most" presidents.
In comparisons with past presidents, Coolidge is picked as the most likely precedent for Reagan by 33 percent of the APSA scholars. He was followed by Hoover at 22 percent, Eisenhower 14 percent, Roosevelt 12 percent.
The scholars seem quite confident of their appraisal of Reagan, with 90 percent saying they already know a lot or at least a fair amount about him.
Reagan's early strength as a president clearly lies in the way he's handled himself in Washington, particularly his mastery of Congress.
Asked to "grade" Reagan on a variety of roles, three-fifths of the scholars -- despite their own Democratic and liberal leanings -- gave him an "A" for his relations with Congress, and another 28 percent a "B."
This was by far his highest mark. His economic program scored a C minus, heavily dragged down with 41 percent of the scholars giving his program an "F." On foreign affairs, Reagan again was given a C minus. On social issues, the majority of political scholars (55 percent) gave Reagan an F.
On "overall performance" President Reagan averaged a C minus -- with 9 percent giving him an A, 20 percent each B and C, 25 percent D and 27 percent F.
The president's White House troika of top aides -- Edwin Meese, James Baker, and Michael Deaver -- win high grades (57 percent A and B), possibly sharing credit for the Reagan successes on Capitol Hill.
But the grades for the President's Cabinet trail downward.
David Stockman, Reagan budget-cutting ace, gets a flattering 43 percent rating of A's and B's. Treasury secretary Donald Reagan scored 34 percent A's and B's, and as many C's.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig averaged a C minus, with 5 percent As, 20 percent B's, and 27 percent F's. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger took a B minus/C plus from the scholars. Education Secretary Bell was graded a C.
United Nations Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick -- the highest ranking woman in the Reagan administration -- also averaged a C, with 29 percent A's and B's and 31 percent F's. Women political scientists were more severe than the men in their rating of Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Forty one percent of the women graded her F, as did 28 percent of the men.
And flunking out -- with 71 percent F's -- was Interior Secretary James Watt. Even 18 percent of the Republican scholars gave Watt an F, as did a matching 18 percent of the conservatives.
Despite some of the unflattering grades for his entourage, President Reagan is thought likely to bring about a strengthening of the institution of the presidency in the next few years.
Departing from their own recent laments over the weakening of the presidency, the political scientists decisively (60 percent) think the presidency will get stronger during the Reagan years, while a monitory (30 percent) think it will stay the same, and very few (10 percent) say it will weaken.
Congress, conversely, will get weaker under Reagan, the scholars say.
The political scholars clearly do not believe the Republicans have managed the kind of realignment that FDR presided over during the 1930s. By more than 2 to 1 (69 percent to 31 percent), they disagree with the assertion that a fundamental realignment is under way.
They back up their view up with predictions of who will win control of the US House of Representatives in 1982 and in 1984. Seventy percent of the scholars pick the Democrats to win again in 1982 and 65 percent pick the Democrats in 1984. Conservative APSA members give the Republicans the edge, but three-fifths of the moderates pick the Democrats for 1982 and 1984, the years when a Republican majority would be expected to emerge if a realignment is under way.
By a resounding 85 percent to 15 percent, the political scholars think "the dominant political trend is toward dealignment -- toward weakened party attachments and greater independence among voters." The view is shared across party lines -- with 72 percent of the Republicans, 85 percent Democrats, and 90 percent of the independents agreeing on dealignment.
The political scientists do think they see evidence of a conservative tide. (The existence of such a tide was disputed by specialists on the subject during APSA discussions in New York.)
Sixty-nine percent of the APSA scholars agree that a "conservative tide is occurring in America," and 31 percent disagree. Republicans (86 percent), Democrats (66 percent), and independents (69 percent), agree with the conservative tide theory.
However, by the same proportions, the scholars see it as a short-range trend. Only 32 percent think the tide will run for a "lengthly" period, 68 percent for a "short" time. By 2 to 1, the conservative scholars see it lasting for a lengthy period; while by larger margins the moderates and liberals see it as short. By a closer 57 percent to 43 percent, the Republicans side with a "lengthy" run for conservatism, while independents and Democrats, by 2 to 1 and 3 to 1, opt for the political oddity of a short tide.
By party identification and ideology, the Monitor sampling closely resembles that of a major 1977 study of the American professoriate by Everett Ladd and Seymour M. Lipset.The 1977 study showed a division of 11 percent Republican, 64 percent Democratic, 24 percent independent, and 1 percent other. More than three-fifths of the Monitor's respondents are college or university professors, and 35 percent specialize in American government.
The University of Connecticut's Roper Center, directed by Mr. Ladd, assisted in the design, processing and analysis of the survey. And the APSA, Thomas E. Mann, executive director, assisted in its distribution.