"The 1984 election isn't the crucial one. It's really a referendum on Reagan. The critical election will be four years later, in 1988. That could set the political stage in this country until the end of this century."
The speaker was a well-known Republican tactician who has worked closely with Ronald Reagan. His thoughts were already racing ahead to what he says could be one of the most exciting elections in modern-day American politics.
Experts say 1988 could be all-important because either the Republicans or the Democrats could finally get a firm grip on the greatest of all prizes in American politics: the middle class.
That prize is still up for grabs three years after Mr. Reagan entered the White House.
At one time, when Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office and the Democrats were in disarray, it looked as if the GOP would be the ruling party of the moderate-voting middle class for as far ahead as anyone could see. But they blew it. Watergate dashed their hopes. Jimmy Carter galloped into Washington out of nowhere, and the Republicans were put out to pasture.
The setback was only temporary, however. The Reagan victory in 1980 gave the GOP another chance to build the party into a major force after the 50-year reign of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society.
Those Democratic policies were challenged by Mr. Reagan and finally fell under the weight of high inflation and high unemployment. But no clear philosophy has emerged to replace them; no set of new ideas has captured the imagination of the American public; and no political party has clearly won the heart of the American voter.
Today, Democrats and Republicans, liberals, moderates, and conservatives in this capital are searching for those new policies.
Among Democrats, one sees this search going on in such groups as the "neoliberals," a couple of hundred of whom recently paid $250 apiece in nearby Reston, Va., to hear the musings of political sages weary of Rooseveltian philosophy. Other Democrats assembled recently under the banner of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a group of what might be called "hawkish liberals," to argue about the party's future.
Among Republicans, one of the most burning questions is the impact of the conservative wing and its role in the party's future.
What we are watching in all of this is the gradual fade-out of the Roosevelt era, which was rooted in the country's memories of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Everett Carll Ladd, executive director of the Roper Center, recently noted that the advantage that the Democratic Party has enjoyed since FDR days sprang from a huge pool of voters whose political outlook was forged by the depression.
You can see the effect of the depression when people are asked their party preference. Americans over the age of 78 (predepression voters) and about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. But Americans in their 60s, who "came of age" during the depression, are Democratic by more than 2 to 1.
In contrast, voters who came of age in the late 1970s, when depression memories were fading, and who are now 20 to 29 years old, are nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
Public-opinion analysts say that if "normal" times continue -- if the US avoids war or economic decline -- the US should eventually see the GOP do better against the Democrats. And in the 1988 election, Republicans could reach a new threshold of support among mainstream voters.
All of this gives the ongoing struggle for control of the Republican Party itself new importance. Whoever sits in the driver's seat could determine whether this decade could see a resurgent GOP or a party torn by ideological strife. And in this struggle, it is clearly the moderates and conservatives who count.
Republicans, of course, have their liberals, such as Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, who will be involved in those struggles. And they have their pragmatic middle-of-the-roaders, including many of the men around President Reagan. It is the conservatives, however, who provide the GOP with its biggest chunk of contributors, who do much of the work in campaigns, and who bring a lot of the enthusiasm and fireworks to the party.
They include such people as Sen. Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina; and outside the government, they are represented by such spokesmen as Terry Dolan, president of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. But conservatives have blown hot and cold on Reagan since he took office. Some even mutter about forming a new "conservative" party if their demands are not heeded.
When one steps back from the past three Reagan years, it can be seen why this powerful conservative wing says Reagan has missed numerous chances to turn America and the party toward the political right.
Many Reagan policies up to now -- despite certain rhetorical flourishes -- reflect essentially traditional Republicanism. Look where the emphasis has gone. Reagan has cut taxes (an old Republican favorite); cut spending, or at least leveled it off, on social programs; backed strong defense policies; taken a firm line with the Soviets; and slowed the growth of business regulation. One issue where he might be faulted on traditional Republican grounds is the big deficit. But even that can be explained by the tug of war between the White House and Congress over whether reducing the deficit should be done by cutting spending (Reagan's position) or raising taxes (the Democratic position).
Then, look what Reagan has not done. This is what galls the conservatives. He has not made a great fuss against forced busing for racial integration, abortion, mandatory union dues, gun control efforts, Soviet troops in Afghanistan, alleged Soviet chemical warfare, or in favor of capital punishment.
These issues are top-priority items for conservatives. But conservative leaders complain that those issues are looked at by pragmatists in the White House as if they were "skunks at the garden party."
Conservatives call this a mistake. Such issues, they say, would harness the American voters' "moral outrage," and could be a powerful force turning middle-class Americans toward conservative (Republican) candidates.
In contrast, conservatives argue, Democrats make very good use of moral issues. Democrats, one conservative leader grumbles, would have you believe that "your
home will be 'ground zero' in a mad nuclear exchange with the Soviets. That's how the Democrats make effective use of moral outrage." Republicans, he complains, must do the same.
Terry Dolan, whose organization spends millions of dollars every election year in support of conservatives, says that Reagan was elected on "the most conservative platform in modern history" and then "surrendered" everything after getting into office. Why? It's all the product of "savvy White House pragmatists" -- who are "the same people Reagan defeated in 1980."
The biggest impact of this retreat by Reagan from the conservative agenda, according to Mr. Dolan and others, will be on the congressional races in 1984 and later.
Reagan will probably win next year, Dolan says, but will be a "lonely landslide," with Congress as Democratic as it is today. Then in 1986, the GOP will take a "real trouncing," and Reagan will find he has insufficient leverage on Capitol Hill to finish his own program, he adds.
The conservative-moderate split among Republicans, of course, is mirrored in the Democratic Party. There, the battle between liberals and middle-roaders goes on every day.
Yet Republicans have an advantage in all this. Voters who are "right of center," or conservative, outnumber those "left of center," or liberal, by 3 to 2. This gives the GOP a built-in ideological edge in nationwide races -- provided they can get an even split with moderates.
Are the conservatives' demands reasonable? Or would making prayer, crime, and abortion into major issues be like shooting themselves in the foot? Analysts say that some parts of the conservative program might be safely exploited by Republicans. For instance, according opinion polls: even 70 percent of all Democrats think taxes are too high. Some 77 percent of all voters favor the death penalty. About 80 percent want to see prayer returned to the schools. And 90 percent think the courts are too soft on criminals.
Such positions could be advocated by Republicans with little danger that they would turn away the political center. At the same time, Democrats running for national office would have more difficulty with such issues because of the danger that they would alienate their party's very active liberals.
Even though the right brings money, enthusiasm, and muscle to the GOP, one fact of US politics remains paramount: Most of the voters are moderates, adhering to neither right nor left. In the end, both parties must pitch their appeal to that all-important group.