"WE STAND at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord." So spoke Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 campaign. If this year's campaign hasn't left you with that feeling, don't worry. You're not alone. The apocalyptic tone of the campaign rhetoric is a misleading guide to what is really at stake.
Republicans ask voters to "stay the course." But neither the president nor Congress has stayed the course set in the 1981 budget and tax bills. Mr. Reagan, despite his claims that tax cuts would force politicians to cut spending, did not dare propose the spending cuts that would have come close to balancing his budget this year. Democrats, despite their demand for a mid-course correction, offer only the kind made in 1982 at the initiative of Senate Republicans. Congress, anticipating the election, made a mid-course correction before the voters spoke.
So, as usual, much of the rhetoric is symbolic. At issue is not whether we abolish the American welfare state or make it larger, but how to manage a government that spends 25 percent of the GNP and how to stimulate economic growth. These issues no one addresses with confidence.
Few Republicans have made this election a referendum on social issues, such as abortion and school prayer. They lost on them this year. Nor have Republicans trained their oratory on getting government regulators off our backs. Here again their failure to make more headway on their 1980 promises undercuts their 1982 promises. Voters hear nothing from the Democrats about national health insurance; there is little support for expanding big government.
There is little outward sign, then, that the next Congress will differ more than marginally from the current one. But the danger is that, if the fulcrum shifts, the legislative balance may be upset altogether. If the Democrats win control of the Senate, it will be by defeating moderate Republicans who gave key support to Sens. Baker, Dole and Domenici in fashioning budget and tax bills this year. Senate Democrats, who have shown little cohesion and less interest in fashioning a program capable of winning a majority, may not do as well.
House Democrats did a better job of fashioning majorities. Though they fell short on key votes in 1981, Speaker O'Neill held Democrats together better than any Democratic speaker has in 40 years. But could he do the same job with a larger Democratic majority? It might be more assertive and less eager to compromise and make tough choices on issues like Social Security.
Serious Republican losses would do more than deprive party leaders of leverage in legislative battles. Such losses would sap the enthusiasm so conspicuous in Republicans elected to Congress in 1978 and 1980. They came to office onfident that their opponents had botched things and that they had the answers the nation needed. Now they may suffer the same loss of confidence in their own ideas that in the Carter years afflicted young Democrats elected as enthusiastic opponents of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. As for the Democrats, will their current euphoria survive the disappointment of small gains-- or the responsibilities imposed by large ones?
Since the passage of the 1981 tax cut, American politics has seemed stalemated. The 1982 election, for all its rhetoric about staying or correcting the course, does not promise to end that decisively. This frustrates those who want clear and final resolutions of major issues. But something should be said for this status quo. If it challenges the tactical skills of politicians, it also tends to prevent excess and to serve faithfully a nation that wants its welfare state disciplined but not abolished.
In a presidential year, we oscillate from one enthusiasm to another, like the Pennsylvania congressman who backed Edward Kennedy in 1980 and became a Reagan Republican in 1981. Off-year elections limit both the changes we can make and the damage we can do. In the 1982 election, we stand somewhere short of Armageddon, and we battle for marginal gains.