Democrats to the fore

THERE'S an uncertainty abroad in the land -- which a reporter moving around the country these days can quickly sense. Yes, the polls are right about President Reagan's popularity. And they are right when they say that most Americans feel better about themselves than they have for years. But against this backdrop there is a growing feeling -- readily perceived in the farm belt and in industrial areas, but elsewhere, too -- that, as one who was experiencing these misgivings put it, ``Things may be coming apart.''

The tangibles that support these uncertainties have been around for some time now: the problems in the banks; the farm and home foreclosures; and a continuing high unemployment rate among youths and among workers displaced by technology and imported products.

So it is that with the 1986 general elections now on the horizon, the outlook for a Democratic revival has been substantially enhanced by this growing public concern about the future. Thus, as of now, the elections take on this shape:

To be sure, it is arguable that the Reublicans are on the move. Their recent drive to convert Democrats was moderately successful. And it seems that hardly a week passes without an announcement of some Democratic officeholder proclaiming that he has seen the light and become a Republican.

Mr. Reagan's beefing up of defense, too, has been popular. No doubt about it: The Democrats have hurt themselves badly by being perceived as being soft on defense and soft on dealing with the Soviets. In fact, a great part of why Americans feel better about themselves is their perception that the United States is better equipped now to stand up to the Soviets.

Polls even show that about as many people now call themselves Republicans as those who say they're Democrats. So why doesn't it follow that the Republicans aren't positioned now to take over Congress, the governorships, and the legislatures?

The answer is that much of the Republican upsurge has been a Reagan upsurge. His popularity gave the party a decided lift. But it won't be a part of any more elections. Granted, the President intends to stump for congressional candidates. Experience, however, has shown that presidential popularity doesn't necessarily rub off.

Voters are not consistent. Many who voted for Reagan didn't like some of the things he was doing.

Also, a lot of pro-Reagan people thought the President wasn't dealing effectively with the economy -- particularly with the budget and trade deficits.

And there were many voters -- many Democrats, in fact -- who simply couldn't vote for Walter Mondale. They considered him a weak candidate and, furthermore, they wanted no return of any vestige of the Carter-Mondale regime -- even though Mr. Mondale was saying he was something different. These voters should find it easy to return to their party in 1986.

And now back to this mood of uncertainty that we've been discerning of late, first in a trip to the West Coast and, more recently, to the Midwest. We saw some of it in 1984 -- but Reagan's popularity overcame it, for the most part, although this impact wasn't too apparent elsewhere, certainly not in the congressional elections.

Now -- with a lot of people wondering about whether things just might fall apart -- the Democrats seem well positioned to come to the fore, at least in 1986.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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