Why GOP strategists worry despite Reagan's high opinion-poll ratings
Washington — President Reagan is still liked by more than 80 percent of the voters. But America's upbeat mood that helped sweep Mr. Reagan back into office is fading, and that has some leading Republicans worried. Speaking privately, they say their concerns began to grow this past summer, and extend to next year's Senate elections.
They note that the summer was disappointing to the White House, despite the President's rising poll numbers. Trade, terrorism, South Africa, Pentagon spending -- they all put Reagan on the defensive. By summer's end, there wasn't a single, clear-cut victory.
Some GOP strategists remain optimistic. But others say there is growing danger that the budget deficit and trade issues, combined with the farm crisis, could spill over into the 1986 Senate elections. Next year, 22 GOP seats in the Senate are up for reelection, and 16 of them are in states with farm-oriented economies. Loss of just four could hand the Senate to the Democrats.
The coming summit with the Soviets, says one GOP planner, is also worrisome. It must be approached ``carefully to minimize exposure to risk. Soviet leaders have used those meetings before to embarrass American presidents.''
On the domestic scene, there are ``traps and mine fields'' for the President on the trade issue that could hurt in 1986, says a Republican strategist, who asked not to be named.
At the same time, the tax-reform issue, Reagan's No. 1 priority, hasn't caught fire with the public. Reagan has been unable to shake the public perception that ``tax reform'' equals ``tax increase.'' Republicans say there is now some danger that the issue could turn around to bite the President because of a growing perception that ``reform'' is just a cover for reducing taxes for the rich.
All this has Democrats rubbing their hands. Democratic pollster Geoff Gavin, using a baseball analogy, says President Reagan has become the Wade Boggs of politics. Reagan's poll numbers, like Mr. Boggs's batting average for the Boston Red Sox, are sky high. But neither man's team seems headed for a pennant.
Democratic pollsters say the ``Olympic glow'' that helped Reagan proclaim during the 1984 campaign that it's ``morning in America'' has now faded.
This ``glow'' is being replaced by a sense of unease. Why? There's no clear-cut answer. GOP strategists say it could be concern over international economic competition, growing fear of unemployment, war in Central America, terrorism, airplane crashes, news stories about farmers losing their land.
``The voters are now ready to look beyond the Reagan presidency.'' says Democrat Gavin. He says issues like tax fairness and budget priorities that put defense ahead of social security have taken ``the bloom off the rose'' for the GOP.
Richard Wirthlin, the President's pollster, concedes that pocketbook issues dominate public concerns right now, but he quickly rejects the notion that the public is looking beyond the Reagan years.
While unemployment is the ``top'' concern, Dr. Wirthlin says, it is mentioned by only 15 percent of the public in his latest poll for the White House. That's a far cry from 1982, when twice that number were worried about unemployment. Today, when the public is asked to name the country's most pressing problem, they list a range of issues. There is no overriding theme.
Wirthlin also notes that while some issues have broken right for the Democrats, the President's emphasis on jobs, economic growth, low inflation, and a nuclear agreement with the Soviets all get strong public support.
Democrats are attacking the President on ``the rather narrow avenue of trade,'' Wirthlin says. But the public doesn't really know what to do about trade problems.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, for example, found Americans split 48 to 47 (yes vs. no) when asked whether the United States should restrict Japanese imports even if that meant higher prices for US consumers. That's not the kind of issue the Democrats can easily exploit, Wirthlin says.
Frank Fahrehkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee, also takes an upbeat view. He points to a recent Harris poll that finds the public prefers Republicans over Democrats when it comes to solving a host of problems, from inflation to the deficit.
Even so, another top Republican is not happy. He yearns for a breakthrough on the deficit, which in turn could solve the trade crisis. ``That would give Reagan, in essence, a 2-for-1 strike,'' he says.