10.8% unemployment, 6.2% inflation, and a doubling of the deficit over the previous year. Those were the cold truths that President Reagan and Republicans faced in November 1982. Yet despite this bleak economic news, and widespread predictions that Republicans would lose the Senate, they retained their 54 Senate seats and limited House losses to 27 seats, many as a result of redistricting. In 2010, the shoe could be on the other foot. President Obama and congressional Democrats could be riding out the worst recession since, at least, 1982. And Republicans will be salivating at the chance to pick up seats by tying Democrats to Obama and the economy.
So exactly how did Reagan emerge unscathed in '82 - and what lessons does it hold for Democrats today? Looking back, Reagan and the Republicans did three things successfully - all of them replicable by Obama and Democrats.
First, Reagan made sure his ambitious blueprint for the country was clear, understandable, and concise. Any American paying attention in 1982 could say exactly what Reagan was trying to do: cut taxes, shrink government, and beef up defense spending. Like Obama, Reagan had an agenda designed to dramatically alter the trajectory of American government. But despite its size and boldness - and perhaps even because of it - Reagan framed it in simple, compelling language. That doesn't mean congressional Democrats must rubberstamp Obamanomics. But it does suggest that a party carrying a unified message about enacting transformational change - even as it debates the details - is likely to be best positioned for 2010.
As the recession deepened in 1982, some Republicans feared a political backlash to Reaganism, but the President held his ground. As the New York Times reported the week before the election, "the President. has taken the lead in turning the Congressional elections of '82 into a referendum on Reaganomics." Reagan gambled that the big story he and his Republican allies were telling - even with the country still mired in rough economic times - would retain the backing of the American people because they had, in electing him, rejected the old Democratic order of Carter and Mondale.
Second, Reagan had a relentless and positive focus on the middle class. He believed that even during grim economic times, middle class Americans were by nature indomitable optimists who wanted economic success, not simply economic survival. He invoked a "shining city on a hill," promised and delivered tax cuts, and even his ideas on welfare were designed to appeal to the middle class ethic of work. Some may argue - as we do - that Reagan's policies ultimately harmed the middle class. But the middle class believed otherwise and gave him overwhelming support.
As in 1982, the middle class holds the keys to the castle for Obama and Democrats. They will determine whether health care, energy, and education reform pass or fail. And they are a truly swing vote - shifting 15-points between 2004, when they delivered a 5-point loss for Democrats, and 2008, when they favored Democrats by 10 points.
And they are still optimists with an unshakeable belief in the American Dream; they want government to help ensure success as they define it, not mere subsistence. This means a comfortable retirement, affordable college for their kids, opportunities for career advancement, lower health care costs and an answer to the challenges of juggling work and family.
Third, Reagan owned the recovery and assigned away blame for the pain. Even in 1982, the economy was described as suffering from the "Carter Recession." Every bit of bad news was assigned to the previous regime; every morsel of good news was evidence of a Reagan-led recovery. Public opinion polls today roundly blame former President Bush for the state of today's economy. But will they in 2010? Some Democrats have been as harsh on administration officials like Timothy Geithner as they have been on Bush. And they have too easily shifted their outrage over economic malpractice to tertiary figures, like AIG executives, rather than where it really belongs - with the former Administration.
In stark contrast to 1982 was 1994, the last time Democrats controlled both the White House and the Congress, and those mid-terms were a disaster. They lost a total of 63 seats and the majority in both houses. In hindsight, they didn't follow the lessons of Reagan. They failed to clarify to the American people what President Clinton and a chaotic Democratic Congress were trying to achieve. The Clinton focus on the middle class, so dominant during his campaign, somehow disappeared. And even though the economy was rotten when Clinton took office, they ended up taking ownership for the bad news.
With Democrats potentially facing many of the same circumstances, perhaps their motto going into 2010 should be: win one for the Gipper.
(Jim Kessler is Vice President and Anne Kim is Economic Program Director for Third Way, a moderate DC think tank.)
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