What record have the Democrats and Republicans in Congress brought before the voters for the 1982 elections?

The answer most people would give today is not all that different from what one might have given a year ago. That's because the 97th Congress spent its first year -- really, its first eight months, until it passed the Reagan tax program, somewhat modified, in August 1981 -- making some major changes in American government. Then it spent its second year -- from last fall to this fall -- presiding over, operating, tinkering with, managing the apparatus it had established in 1981. Most of the rhetoric of the election campaign, judging from what we have seen already from the parties, will focus on what Congress did in its first eight months. But the meaning of the election may, in the long run, come more from what it tells us about public reaction to what Congress has done in the last 13.

The rhetorical emphasis is clear. In August 1981, Reagan Republicans already had fall 1982 campaign themes in their heads; they have had to change the script somewhat. They were planning on campaigning on what they expected to be able to portray as plausible evidence that the Reagan economic policies were working. Now that the painless prosperity that supply-side economists promised has failed to materialize, they have chosen a different theme: "Stay the course." The idea is that things will get better -- an idea they may have a hard time selling more in light of the disappointing economic indicators for August than of the expected 10 percent October unemployment figure the White House was alerting reporters to a week ago.

The Republicans are also counting on the patience of voters, their willingness to wait a while for economic results. Here they may be on firmer ground. Voters understand that it takes a few years for an economic program to work, and polling data show that voters were prepared to endure some discomfort if it was needed to turn the economy around. They are looking for long-term results, not a short-term fix; accordingly, the revenue increase this year is likely to hurt Republicans less than they expected, and the tax cut last year is certain to help them less than they expected. The Republicans are stuck with responsibility for the economic programs they enacted, with help from only a few Democrats, in 1981. "Stay the course" is an attempt to extract maximum virtue from unavoidable necessity.

And they have one other factor working for them: voters have no clear idea where Democrats stand on economic issues. In 1981, when the president proposed major changes, large numbers of Democrats in the Senate and only a handful of "boll weevils" in the House backed him. House Democrats did, in fact, craft a detailed budget program. On taxes, House Democrats tried to outbid Republicans in cutting taxes for business and (by doing what the administration dared not -- cutting the 70 percent tax on "unearned income") for rich individuals. So for most voters it was utterly unclear what the Democratic program was. Similarly in 1982, on the revenue increase. All Senate Democrats initially opposed Sen. Bob Dole's revenue increase bill, which a majority of House Democrats then supported. Which was the Democratic position?

Voters have gotten a sense from this Congress that Democrats would not cut many programs as much as the Republicans have and that they would not cut some taxes as much as Republicans have. They have gotten the sense that Democrats are more reluctant to cut scheduled future Social Security benefits. They have gotten a sense as well that the Democrats, very much in contrast to their counterparts 10 and 15 years ago, have no plans to significantly increase the size and scope of government. But voters have not gotten any clear sense of how Democrats would resolve the very difficult questions that are presented when you actually sit down and try to discipline government spending. They have gotten no clear sense of what the Democrats would do on taxes.

And for good reason: congressional Democrats themselves do not know. For 40 years, congressional Democrats have been accustomed either to following the lead of activist Democratic administrations or to cooperating in a responsible manner with Republican administrations that, whatever their rhetoric, never really tried to disassemble welfare state programs. They have no experience developing plans of their own. This became clear in the Carter years, when the administration set no clear priorities, and is clear now in the Reagan years, when the administration backs policies Democrats almost have to oppose.

So what you see in the Democratic Party's advertising this fall is not any indication of what the Democrats would do, but a description of what they think the Republicans have been doing: they have been unfair; they have threatened Social Security; they have aided the rich and hurt the poor and -- politicians always hurriedly add -- the middle class. One Democratic Party advertisement shows a champagne glass being filled up -- and nothing trickling down to the tin cup proferred below. The Republican record in Congress -- particularly the tax breaks the administration agreed to to get its tax cut through largely intact in August 1981 -- makes such criticism plausible. And of course voters would be far less interested in hearing it if Reaganomics were already producing the prosperity Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski promised.

So the battle is fought over the issues of 1981. The major economic issues that Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill sparred over in June and August of that year will go before the voters, who have the advantage of 12 months of experience with the results. Incumbents of both parties, through their stands on these issues and their skillful adaptation to local political terrain, look to be in pretty good shape. The Democrats, given the shape of the economy and some unexpected breaks in redistricting of House seats, seem in a strong position to win most open seats. But unless the tide running toward them is very strong, they will not make huge gains, because Republicans have a big edge in campaign funds and because Democrats, back last year when it counted, did not attract the kind of well-financed and aggressive candidates they had in good Democratic years like 1974.

But the campaign is also shaped -- and the results may also be determined -- by the congressional politics of 1982. Since Congress passed the Reagan budget and tax cuts, most of its time and psychic effort have been devoted to running the government in a reasonably competent fashion. This meant, among other things, some mid-course corrections on the path charted in 1981, most notably the tax revenue bill passed by Senate Republicans and House Democrats (with many Republican votes). This was a coalition of legislative majorities, practical men and women who knew they had a responsibility to keep the ship of state afloat and, after understandable reluctance in most cases, acted accordingly. The bill itself was crafted by Dole; it was supported by O'Neill after he got the president's commitment to support it himself on television and to deliver 100 Republican votes for it in the House despite Jack Kemp's opposition. There are other examples as well: the budget, ongoing defense bills, continuation of most domestic programs. Having done something that looked like and was intended to be a cut in government's share of the national economy, Congress went on to manage government so cut in a reasonably responsible way.

That is not the stuff of political campaigns, ordinarily. Yet consider some of the themes of both parties. "Stay the course": hardly a cry to the barricades, right-wing or otherwise. The basic idea is to keep things pretty much as they are. Or consider the Democratic ad that shows an elephant in a china shop, knocking over one display case of glassware with a swing of its trunk, wrecking a case of crockery with a kick of its leg. The idea is that the Republicans are destroying things, and that they must be stopped before they do more damage. The implication is that the Democrats are safer, saner, sounder managers of the status quo.

And that is the unspoken, unarticulated meaning of this election, in my view: the Democrats have become the party of the status quo, while the Republicans are the party advocating certain changes, many of which they have already produced. The Democrats thus serve the same function in today's politics that Republicans like Thomas E. Dewey and Dwight D. Eisenhower served in the politics of the 1940s and 1950s. Dewey and Eisenhower sent voters this message: we won't repeal the New Deal, but we are more practical and sound than the Democrats, and we'll manage it better and more economically. The Democrats are now sending something like this message: we're not going to repeal the main elements of the Reagan program -- we'll increase defense spending and decrease some domestic spending -- but we are more practical and sound than the free-market intellectuals and oddball theorists who determine policy for the Republicans, and we'll manage things more sensibly and fairly.

So for the Democrats, the real argument is not so much what Democrats did in the 97th Congress, as it is what they didn't do. One major example: in 1981, the Clean Air Act came up for renewal. This is one of the major environmental laws, and also one whose regulations impose huge costs on business and, therefore, on the whole economy. Everyone assumed the law would be drastically revised. In fact, Congress has not amended the Clean Air Act at all; it left the current law in effect. This is due in large part to skillful legislative work by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the health subcommittee, and to the fact that Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) successfully opposed changes in the Environment Committee, which he chairs. But it also reflects an unwillingness on the part of Congress generally to alter the status quo on an important matter on which the thinkers of the Reagan administration believe change is necessary.

You could multiply that example by a dozen. The Voting Rights Act was renewed, despite grave reservations by administration officials. The Economic Development Administration was altered, not abolished. The food stamp program was cut, but not as deeply as the administration wanted. Most important, proposals circulated in administration circles to cut Social Security benefits never surfaced, because every time there was a hint they would the protest was so loud the administration backed off.

The fact is that voters do not want the makeshift American welfare state abolished. While on the surface voters express great dissatisfaction with our system, their underlying feelings are quite different: they don't want the basic balance between public and private sector, between defense and domestic spending, drastically changed. And why should they? This is a society that, whatever our current economic problems, works astonishingly well. While on the surface the political battles of 1982 seem to be a referendum on the significant changes the Reagan administration was able to achieve in the first eight months of 1981, in the longer run this election year may come to seem a battle over who can best manage the government. The voters seem unlikely to give Republicans the gains they would need to go farther in the direction their leader wants. The question then is whether they will entrust the management of government to the combination of Republicans and Democrats who managed it in 1982 or whether they will elect enough Democrats to force their party to assume the responsibility, even though they have given little indication how they would discharge it.