Why don't 10 million jobless stir up US voters?
Washington — Washington is mystified at the failure of record 10 million unemployed to stir up much of a political windstorm this fall.
Republicans and Democrats alike, in races for reelection to Congress, keep looking over their shoulder for an aroused public reaction against the recession.
But it hasn't happened - at least not yet.
''I find the country stunningly quiet,'' says Gene Eidenberg, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, just returned from a trip to the political hinterlands to check his party's races.
The week's political drama in Washington has been the Democrats' attempt to billboard the unemployment issue - by pushing through a $1 billion jobs program that would put 200,000 Americans to work on jobs like bridge and road repair. As a broad political stroke, it was the Democrats' answer to Reagan's recent spending-bill veto, which the Republicans used to portray the Democrats as ''big spenders.''
''The key development will be the unemployment rate,'' insists a Democratic congressional strategist, of the Washington political struggle to motivate voters.
Republicans are having to pay more attention to the jobs issue in their districts, says Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R) of Michigan, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and leader of the GOP House reelection drive. But unemployment isn't costing the Republicans seats.
''Even in Michigan, the state with the nation's worst unemployment, Republicans will narrow the gap in the state congressional lineup by one seat this fall,'' Mr. Vander Jagt asserts.
Republicans say they think the Democrats' $1 billion jobs bill - expected to pass in the House but stall in the Senate - won't help the Democrats in November. ''It represents their failed solutions of the past - larger federal programs and greater federal spending,'' Vander Jagt says. ''Our polls show the people voted in 1980 for a change.''
Surveys disclose that the public is far from oblivious to unemployment. The latest Gallup poll shows a sharp climb in the number of Americans listing unemployment and recession as the nation's top problems. And the public picks the Democratic Party as better able to handle unemployment - by 35 percent to 26 percent over the Republicans, with 27 percent seeing no difference between the parties.
And economic issues clearly dominate in the public's thinking about House races. Seven out of 10 Americans picked economic issues over all others - over defense, foreign affairs, and social issues like abortion and gun control - as the most important in deciding their vote for Congress. This came in a Penn & Schoen Associates survey in August, taken for The Garth Analysis, a bimonthly political strategy publication.
This primacy of ''bread and butter'' issues partly explains the sudden eclipse of social issues - from abortion to school prayer - on the political calendar in Washington in recent days. The politicians are getting the word from constituents that they didn't want the overriding economic problems to be held hostage by filibusters on social issues - despite claims by many conservatives that the 1980 election heralded a sharp public turn to the right on social topics.
The Democrats urgently want to gain the initiative on the recession. However the jobs bill ultimately fares against a threatened presidential veto, the Democrats will keep pressing.
The next Democratic step promised by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. is a new government program ''modeled on the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that helped pull our country from the depths of the depression by creating private-sector jobs.''
Unemployment does not help the Democrats as much as conventional wisdom thinks it should for two reasons, say Republicans: the lack of a clear alternative program, and the public's tendency to blame Carter and the Democrats for the current recession.
''As the campaign heats up, the recession issue could begin to cut against Republicans,'' says GOP House campaign chairman Vander Jagt.
House minority leader Rep. Robert Michel (R) of Illinois acknowledges that organized labor could yet make something of the jobs issue. ''If they (organized labor) get fired up, then you've got a campaign,'' Mr. Michel says.
Economic issues may be uppermost on the public's mind. But surveys show little net advantage from the economy for either party going into the election.
By a modest edge, 52 percent to 44 percent, the public approves of Reagan's general economic policy, in the latest Penn & Schoen survey. But over the summer , the public has shifted slightly away from basing its congressional vote this fall on the President's performance. In August, the largest proportion of voters - 55 percent - said Reagan's performance would have ''no effect'' on their congressional vote, while 25 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for a Democrat, and 16 percent for a Republican, according to Penn & Schoen.
''This ought to be a good year for the Democrats,'' observes Democratic pollster Peter Hart. But Democrats remain uneasy.