This is an editorial from National Review in 1986, shortly after the GOP got shellacked in that year’s midterms. I thought it might be of interest given various of the debates and conversations going on today:
Elections are the Rorschach blots of punditry. No matter how enigmatic their contours, everyone sees in them his own preoccupations. Thus liberals saw in the 1986 election the end of Reaganism (VOTERS’ REBUFF TO REAGAN’S VISION, read a headline in the New York Times, while Hodding Carter III called it an “explicit repudiation of President Reagan”). Kevin Phillips, who has been pining for the end of ideology ever since his ringing prediction of realignment, The Emerging Republican Majority, turned out to be premature, foresaw that “both parties will try to curb their respective ideological cadres.” The Republican National Committee talked stoutly about its statehouse victories, and about party-building in the South. In the broadest sense, it was an actuarial election.
Those with the most to lose, lost it. The Republicans, holding 22 of the 34 contested Senate seats, suffered a net loss of eight, and the Democrats, holding 27 of the 36 contested governorships, also went down eight. The GOP’s small losses in the House were a tribute to the fact that it had sunk so low in that body, there was nowhere lower to go. The first finished last, and the last finished first.
When the odds take over to such an extent, it means that no one succeeded in changing the odds. So it was this time around. President Reagan’s major Senate swing was, as columnist David Broder pointed out, a triumph of stubborn loyalty, even toward candidates he knew were losers. But the White House failed to impose an overall theme on the contest. (It usually does fail in off years; one exception, the election of 1938, backfired, when FDR’s chosen issue, court reform, came to be seen as court packing.) Immediately after Reykjavik, it looked as if SDI could supply the needed flash, but it proved to be only a flash in the pan.
The Democrats, meanwhile, tried to avoid imposing a theme, while edging as close as they could to Republican concerns. “For some years now,” the Times admitted, “the Democrats have been struggling with their image, attempting to convince floating voters that they were not the captive of minority groups, the elderly, and the trendy. On Tuesday they succeeded.” “Where,” asked Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, “was the candidate who won by challenging President Reagan” on SDI, Contra aid, or the deficit? His (correct) answer: “Nowhere.” The benefits to presidential hopefuls were equally mixed. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden and Sam Nunn, in winning Senate committee chairmanships, saw their prospects brighten marginally. Mario Cuomo broke the record (formerly held by Grover Cleveland) for the most decisive gubernatorial victory in New York history, though there were liberal complaints, here and there, that in holding himself at arm’s length from the party’s freakhouse senatorial candidate, Mark Green, he had run a mean-spirited, self-aggrandizing campaign (see also “Mario’s Lament,” p. 19).
Among Republicans, Robert Dole lost his position as majority leader, but picked up free time for campaigning. The same could be said of George Bush, who would have been bound to Washington if the Senate had split fifty-fifty, as some were predicting. Jack Kemp won his Buffalo House seat by what was for him an unusually slim margin, which meant he won it by 57 per cent. The only candidate to get a direct poke in the eye was Paul Laxalt, who could not guarantee the election of a hand-picked successor to his own Nevada Senate seat. It seems that Laxalt, the catnip of hard-nosed pols, can rearrange elections in the Philippines, but not in his home state. A static election, then. But in politics, stases are only momentary. Winning the important battles of the next two years, and winning the elections two years from now, will require an aggressive, go-for-broke state of mind. This means pressing the conservative agenda, and not allowing Democrats to pretend to subscribe to it.
It is true, for instance, as Cohen wrote, that many Democrats did not oppose Contra aid head on. What they will do, however, is oppose efforts to increase it. Every time a CIA gun runner gets caught, or a Contra platoon shoots up a village, they will join the hue and cry to cut aid off. They will oppose breaking relations with Nicaragua, or recognizing a government in exile. On SDI, they will give the concept lip service. They will even vote funding for research (at reduced levels). They will resist any effort to begin immediate deployment of technology as it becomes available. By the time 1988 rolls around, if the Democrats have their way, Ortega will still be battening in Managua, and there will be no lasers in North Dakota. These are not situations the American people approve of. Most Americans do not want a Soviet satellite a two days’ drive from San Diego, or a strategic doctrine based on the prospect of their own incineration. But the case has to be made.
Reagan’s last two years can be like Eisenhower’s, from 1958 to 1960, or like what everyone assumed would be Truman’s, from 1946 to 1948: a diminuendo, or a free-for-all. Only if Reagan and the conservative movement draw the shutters and duck their heads will the Reagan Revolution be repudiated.