Reagan Redux: Democrats, GOP Fight Over 1980s

But campaign strategies may backfire, since Americans' views on Reagan era are mixed

RONALD REAGAN and later George Bush ran against the Carter years, with their stagflation and hostages abroad. That was a no-brainer, as strategies go.

Lately Democrats from Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania to Douglas Stephens, a candidate for an open House seat in Peoria, Ill., are accusing their opponents of seeking a return to the trickle-down Reaganomics of the 1980s.

This is a trickier proposition. Americans hold mixed views about the 1980s and its policies.

``The Reagan years were great. We all made a lot of money,'' says Steve Korfonta, a real estate developer eating lunch on a downtown park bench on a sunny day this week.

``It was a criminal era. What it said was greed was good,'' says Ray Riley, a legal secretary in a tan suit sitting nearby.

``Good times,'' says Andrea Wagner, an editorial assistant reading a paperback.

``Disaster,'' says an energy analyst for a utility company as she chats on the grass with a friend.

The debate in many House and Senate races is returning to the 1980s because of the ``Contract with America'' signed by Republican candidates for the House on the Capitol steps Sept. 27.

It outlines measures from cutting taxes to building a Star Wars missile defense system that they promise to bring to a vote if the GOP wins control of the House.

The White House and Democratic Party officials have attacked this contract as a return to the Reagan years. Democratic candidates have begun to pick up the charge and even use it in paid advertisements.

A memo by White House pollster Stanley Greenberg last week reportedly indicates that the primary benefit of attacking the Reagan years is not to win over new supporters but to mobilize the Democratic base of support into turning out at the polls. Lack of enthusiasm among hard-core Democrats is a major obstacle to Democratic candidates this fall.

Overall, Mr. Reagan remains the most highly regarded president in a generation, according to polls, yet Democrats are betting that terms such as Reaganomics and trickle-down economics remind middle-class families of the anxiety they felt about making ends meet in the 1980s.

Republicans acknowledge that Democrats won a war of labels in tarring the 1980s as the decade of greed and deficits.

The astronomical earnings of Wall Street brokers who later were convicted of insider trading, the savings-and-loan bailout, contract-fixing for well-connected Republicans at the Housing and Urban Development department, and movies such as Oliver Stone's ``Wall Street'' all helped impress an image of the Reagan years as the rich run amok.

Yet far more Americans felt better off at the end of the 1980s than felt worse off, according to a 1989 Washington Post poll. Most Americans said their children would be better off because of Reagan policies.

THE 1980s were in fact a time when the rich grew richer and income gaps widened, according to statistical evidence. The average hourly wage declined, although household incomes continued to grow slightly because of more working women adding income to the family account. These trends were under way long before Reagan took office.

Families that were poor in 1980 were substantially better off by 1990, but there were more poor to replace them, so the total number of American living in poverty was higher by 1990.

The average federal tax burden was about the same at the end of the decade as at the beginning, but it was concentrated more on low and middle incomes, because more of it was in the form of Social Security taxes.

Deficits escalated dramatically, but in the late 1980s, they were tapering off again as a percentage of economic output.

The 31 percent of Americans who said their children would be worse off because of the Reagan presidency are probably a close match to the core Democratic base vote.

Reagan, of course, will not appear on anyone's ballot Nov. 8. Nor will Bill Clinton. The dynamics of many individual races will be far more powerful than these broad ideological themes are.

The anti-Reagan strategy ``can energize and motivate our base voters,'' says a Democratic official. ``But it can also reach persuadable voters, swing voters.''

That has some resonance for Andrew Rashid, a young Washington architect who says he agreed with most of the Reagan program in the 1980s, but not with much of the Republican ``contract.'' ``I think they are just trying to go back,'' he says. ``These are different times.'' The end of the cold war, for example, no longer presents the same need to strengthen the military, as promised in the contract, he says.

``My sense is that Americans don't want to turn back in terms of policy,'' says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. ``We're in some ways a change-oriented people.''

Many Republicans are wary of getting on the wrong side of that response. Republican consultants are not advising their candidate-clients to debate the 1980s.

``People don't want to go back politically,'' Republican consultant Vince Breglio says. ``That's never a great thing.''

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