US politics, December 1981
The politicians have ceased looking back to the November of a year ago when all were impressed by the decisive political victory won by Ronald Reagan and his promise of a revitalized America to be erected on ''supply-side'' economics.
Instead the politicians are looking forward now to next November when the entire House of Representatives in Washington, and a third of the Senate, will be up for review by their respective voters.
The tone of the new and changed mood in this second chapter of the Reagan administration was set on Dec. 1 when Edward Koch, mayor of America's most prestigious city, did not hesitate to call the President's domestic policies ''a sham and a shame.'' New York's mayor is a Democrat and his words were partisan. But not until recently would any prominent Democrat have felt free to use such vigorous words against the President.
The 1980 election score, and a series of early victories over the Congress, had until this season protected Mr. Reagan from such criticism. But the figures of the last election have been tarnished by rising unemployment (now estimated at over 9 million), slack business and industry, and the prospect of record high federal budget deficits for the years ahead. The 1980 election record no longer shields Mr. Reagan from criticism.
During the 1980 campaign Mr. Reagan used with great success a rhetorical question. ''Are you better off today than you were four years ago?'' A lot of people said ''No.'' But no Republican politician would dare toss that question to a large public audience today about the events of the past year. There are three large groups of voters who believe today that they are substantially worse off than they were a year ago. They are organized labor, blacks, and the present and prospective recipients of social security.
The most interesting thing about the 1980 election was that a very high percentage of people in these three groups either did not vote at all or actually voted for Mr. Reagan. They make up the core of the traditional Democratic party constituency. But in 1980 they did not go down the line for Democrat Carter. A lot of them sat on their hands. A lot of them, worried by inflation and pinched by high taxes, actually voted Republican.
But if the mid-term election were to be held tomorrow the behavior of those three groups would be markedly different. The black community feels badly hurt by cutbacks in programs which were either helping them out of the slums or at least easing their lives in the slums. Organized labor is openly and avowedly on the warpath against Mr. Reagan, largely because of rising unemployment, but partly also because he did in fact destroy a labor union - the air traffic controllers. The Social Security community has had a bad fright from all the talk of cutbacks. They are deeply suspicious of Mr. Reagan.
The first two weeks of December were marked by growing efforts from within the Reagan administration to mollify at least two of these three groups - organized labor and the social security constituency.
Mr. Reagan talked about the possibility of allowing the 12,000 former air traffic controllers to apply for other federal jobs. It was a gesture to organized labor. And he went before the White House Conference on Aging in Washington and denied that he is ''an enemy of my own generation.'' He is reported from the White House to have refused to listen to any suggestions for cutting back on Social Security benefits.
The gestures to labor and to those dependent on social security payments testify to rising anxiety among the rank and file of Republican politicians about next November's mid-term elections. If the black, labor and social security groups all come out decisively against Mr. Reagan and the Republicans, then the GOP victory of 1980 will look like a short-term aberration in the records of American politics.
The above is of course the reason that those Republican politicians who must face the voters next November are putting pressure on Mr. Reagan to be kind to all who receive or expect soon to receive social security payments and also seek to woo some segments of organized labor back toward the Republican standard. No party wants to go to the polls with blacks, labor and everyone over 60 years of age solidly backing the opposition.
So we are entering a chapter in the Reagan story in which the political battle in Washington will be between Mr. Reagan and his tax and budget cutting constituency on one side and all Republican politicians wanting votes next November on the other. It will pit the ideologues and the ''supply-siders'' against the ''polls.'' It will test Mr. Reagan's own political beliefs.
During this coming test we will find out just how pragmatic Mr. Reagan can be.