TEN PERCENT UNEMPLOYED, housing and auto industries petrified by economic rigor mortis, farmers more desperate than at any time since the depression, new Chevrolets selling for $15,000 -- 1982 has gotto be a big Democratic year, doesn't it?
By rights the answer should be yes. But as the Democrats have learned, there are no rights in politics. Some days it also seems that there are no Democrats in politics -- at least no Democrats that a Harry Truman would recognize, no Democrats who think their job is to fight for little guys against big guys.
The fact is that the Democrats are going through an identity crisis, which is one reason why they may not win a landslide next month. Voters rightly wonder just what the Democrats are offering in return for votes in these congressinal elections. The answer, of course, is that they are offering something that isn't Reaganomics. What they're not is what they're selling.
Of course, such negative politics is the American way; Ronald Reagan is in the White House principally because he is not Jimmy Carter, according to the best post- election analyses of the 1980 vote.
Professional Democratic politicians -- judging by conversations with two dozen of them -- generally believe their side will be swept back to power eventually merely by waiting for the Reagan Revolution to collapse in ruin. They figure that Reagan will eventually be weakest on the economic issues that matter most on election days. But will "eventually" arrive by Nov. 2? Last week no Democrat would make a firm prediction.
Indeed, there are very few agreed "Democratic" positions on any question, from policy issues to tactics. "We are left open to the charge that we don't stand for anything," as Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) put it.
"The reason Reagan and the Republicans are holding up," said consultant Jill Buckley,"is the compared-to-what factor... What is10 2 the Democratic Party today?"
One good answer to that question is, nearly broke. The well-publicized Republican advantage in campaign money this year is huge. In many races the GOP candidate will outspend the Democrat by two or three to one. A spending advantage that big can become much more important than philosophical issues, especially since off-year elections are rarely influenced by philosophy.
There are numerous esoteric ways to analyze the 1982 elections, but it may be smarter just to concentrate on cash. Republicans have forced Democrats on the defensive in many individual races for no other reason than their financial advantage -- whether or not the Democrats know what they stand for.
Nationally, Republican money has also been formidable. For example, Democrats thought they had a terrific issue in Social Security. Then the Republican National Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars broadcasting a television commercial which -- though factually inaccurate -- has apparently redeemed President Reagan on the Social Security issue in the eyes of many voters. The ad wrongly gives Reagan credit for last summer's increase in the Social Security cost- of-living adjustment, which was actually mandated by Congress and which Reagan initially wanted to cut. But according to Republican polls, the ad has worked.
Some Democrats are trying to turn the Republicans' money advantage against them. Robert Beckel, a campaign consultant who used to work in the Carter White House, has decided that this is another way the Democrats can sell what they're not.s Beckel is making television commercials for some of his Democratic candidates that show Texas oil wells and the names of actual Republican donors from the oil industry. An announcer asks viewers if they know why oil men from Texas are so eager to put a Republican in Congress from Virginia or Pennsylvania.
But it seems unlikely that spending millions more than the Democrats will actually hurt the Republicans. Not having money is not easily turned to advantage against a party as rich as the GOP this year.
"If Democrats had the money the Republicans have, it would be a Democratic landslide," said Timothy Russert, who is running Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's reelection campaign in New York. Moynihan only got a formal opponent 10 days ago -- state assemblywoman Florence Sullivan, an obscure conservative. Despite her lack of stature, Russert said, she'll be guaranteed about $1 million for her five-week election campaign, most of it from national Republican sources. "She'll run a series of negative ads that will close up the race considerably," Russert predicted.
One interesting fact about Republican money: Though a lot of it comes from corporate PAC's, the GOP raises millions from small contributors -- ordinary folks. They beat the Democrats hollow in this regard.
Many Democrats look to the future with great optimism -- the future beyond Nov. 2, anyway. A good psychiatrist might interpret this as another symptom of the identity crisis -- tomorrow we'll get organized.
Consultant Joe Rothstein suggested that Reagan will succeed in removing all the old Democratic "negatives" before he leaves office. For years, he said, Democratic candidates have been put on the defensive by charges that they were irresponsible big spenders, big regulators and soft on defense. Reagan has created "an issues revolution," Rothstein said, that will eventually produce a whole new political vocabulary, and will free Democrats from those old bugaboos. By making every government program from school lunches to Social Security a potential source of controversy while totally failing to balance the budget, Rothstein reckons, Reagan has created new Republican negatives that will help Democratic candidates in the future.
In other words, it could become easier than everrfor Democrats to sell what they're not.
That's for later. For now, though, Rothstein is among the Democratic professionals who don't expect a 1982 landslide, no matter that the economic indicators would seem to insure one. "We're still the party of Tip O'Neill and Jimmy Carter," Rothstein said, a point echoed by many others. This will remain true until the Democrats have chosen a new standard-bearer in 1984.
An imaginary white knight -- that 1984 candidate -- cannot compete with a popular president like Reagan. Democrats are enormously frustrated by Reagan's continuing popularity. Pollster Tubby Harrison, who works for Democratic candidates, observed that if Jimmy Carter were president in economic conditions like these, he'd have been lucky to have a 15 percent approval rating. Reagan still has 50 percent approval from the public. "The real thing is, they see him as a leader," Harrison said.
"A lot of voters still like the president a helluva lot," added Gary Hoggard, another pollster who works for Democrats. "Independent voters are still pretty much in favor of his programs -- at least the philosophy."
And yet -- imagine a scenario: This Friday, the government confirms that unemployment has gone over 10 percent, and because of advance anticipation of this announcement (particularly by the networks), it becomes a big media event. Millions of Americans are confronted with poignant pictures of people like them -- not poor black and brown people in ghettos, but ordinary working Americans -- suffering from unemployment.
The stock market continues to drift downward, wiping out most of the gains of the summer bull market, and with them the aura of optimism about economic recovery that President Reagan has been pumping so hard. A series of official announcements demonstrate that the recession is not ending at all.
Add a presidential gaffe or two (Tuesday night's clumsy press conference performance was a good reminder how easily they can happen) and a dash of bad luck overseas, and the next 30 days could bring a Republican unraveling that would indeed produce a Democratic landslide on Nov. 2.
"I can't say that it definitely won't happen," said pollster Harrison. (In historical terms, it would be a big Democratic win to pick up 20 seats in the House. In comparable modern elections, the average loss for a new incumbent president's party in an off year has been a dozen House seats.)
In a country as nonpolitical and nonideological as this one, there is no room for confident prognostications of off-year elections. The turnout could easily fall below a third of the adult population, and that could mean (because better-off people vote more than poor ones) that a majority of the voters will be upper-class Americans who have benefited most from the Reagan presidency. Or the turnout could rise to 40 percent and create the Democratic landslide hypothesized above.
Regardless of the outcome, the Democratic Party -- the party of Robert Strauss and Charles Manatt, as well as Jefferson and F.D.R. -- will be left with its identity crisis.
There was a time when being a Democrat meant something specific in terms of America's class structure. This is a crude generalization, but it was broadly accurate: There were little guys, whom the Democrats represented, and there were big guys, whom the Republicans looked after.
Little guys used to be have-nots, but in the 25 years of boom after World War II, millions of them became haves and moved up into the middle class. The politics of the last dozen years suggest that the Democratic Party never found a way to move with them. No doubt a majority of Americans still consider themselves little guys, and still think that big guys have disproportionate influence in the country. But this new type of little guy isn't poor, and he doesn't identify with food stamp recipients or Hispanic farm workers.
Today the Democratic Party is nominally led by a fat-cat lawyer from California -- Manatt -- whom many prominent Democrats privately regard as a self-promoting schemer. Democrats are eagerly pursuing the contributions of corporate political action committees that have made the Republicans so rich. Last year the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee literaly bid against the Republicans for the blessing of corporate and financial interests in the tax bill fight.
Some Democrats are discussing "new ideas" to revive their party's fortunes, but too few of them are worrying about how to reclaim a palpable Democratic identity that wage-earning Americans can identify with. Polls show that a lot of little-guy voters think the Democratic Party has been captured by those food stamp recipients and Hispanic farm workers and other activist minorities. This is not a formula for political success.
But then, it seems, neither is Reaganomics.