It was on Aug. 27, 1980, that candidate Ronald Reagan told a Columbus, Ohio, Teamster audience that the lives of working people had "been shattered by a new depression--the Carter depression." The unemployment rate in what Reagan chose that day to characterize as a "severe depression" was 7.6 percent.
That was below the 9 percent peak of the 1975 recession, when President Ford was in the White House, and far below the 25 percent unemployment level of the Great Depression.
So reporters in Columbus went hunting for Ford's economic adviser, Alan Greenspan, who was traveling with Reagan at that point and had drafted the speech. Greenspan said the language in question had been inserted after the speech left his hands. While "we are in one of the major economic contractions of the past 50 years," he said, "I wouldn't describe it in such" terms as Reagan had used.
Reagan then issued a formal statement saying, "As far as I am concerned, the line between recession and depression cannot be measured in the strict economists' terms but must be measured in human terms. When our working people--including those who are unemployed-- must endure the worst misery since the 1930s, then I think we ought to recognize that they consider it a depression . . . ."
A few days later, he swung even more onto the offense, telling audiences that President Carter had shown his callousness by questioning Reagan's characterization of the "depression."
"If he wants a definition, I'll give him one," Reagan said, in what quickly became one of his guaranteed applause lines. "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."
That not-so-ancient bit of campaign trivia became relevant last week when unemployment in the tenth month of the Reagan administration hit 8.4 percent--fractionally higher than the rate that last year's Republican nominee characterized as a "severe depression."
Ronald Reagan is lucky that the Democrats have short memories and lack a spokesman with the wit or style to turn that recession-depression- recovery line back on its author. But the economic and political reality of this current recession is too big a fact of life to be obscured even by the Democrats' chronic ineptitude.
There is a history of what happens to Republicans in recession years, and it does not make happy reading.
There was a recession from July 1953 to May 1954. Unemployment--which often lingers several months after the economy turns around-- peaked in September 1954. That November Republicans lost one Senate seat, 18 House seats and nine governorships.
There was a recession from August 1957 to April 1958. Unemployment peaked in July 1958, and four months later Republicans lost 13 Senate seats, 47 House seats and seven governorships.
There was a recession from April 1960 to February 1961, and unemployment peaked in the May-July period. In November 1960, Republicans gained two Senate seats, 20 House seats and one governorship--but lost the presidency.
There was a recession from December 1969 to November 1970. Unemployment peaked a month after the mid-term election, in which Republicans lost nine House seats, gained five Senate seats, but lost 11 governorships.
There was a recession from November 1973 to March 1975. Unemployment peaked in May 1975. In the 1974 and 1976 elections combined, the Republicans lost three Senate seats, 44 House seats, seven governorships--and the presidency.
The onset of this recession was in the summer of 1981. Its terminus is uncertain, but most forecasts now would put the recovery in the summer of 1982. If unemployment again lags behind other economic measures in moving in the healthy direction, the jobless numbers may not start to improve until the fall of 1982.
That is a shaky base from which to be campaigning--especially for a party whose president had such quotable things to say about the opposition's economic failures.
The best gift any Republican could get from Santa Claus this Christmas is a quick turnaround in the economy. If, instead, the holidays bring a wave of pink slips like the one Reagan recalls his own father received one Depression Christmas, then history suggests that there will inevitably be some unemployed Republican politicians after next November.