Ronald Reagan may soon understand how Henry II felt about Thomas Becket. Reagan may mutter, "Who will rid me of this turbulent House of Representatives?" No one will. But the changed composition of the House will not make government much more anarchic than it already is. And Reagan can comfort himself with the thought that were God not a Republican, the Democrats would have controlled the Senate after each of the last two elections.
In 1981 and 1982, Reagan won the crucial budget votes in the House so narrowly that switches by four and 12 members would have stalled his program. But his program is now in place. To hold it there--to, say, block repeal of the third phase of the tax cut--he just needs the presidency's one great power, the veto. That is, he needs only one-third plus one of one house of Congress.
Confrontation with Congress can lead to chaos in the heart of government, the appropriations process. But there already is semi-chaos. Congress will stagger into the lame-duck session, and into December, the third month of the fiscal year, with only three of 13 appropriations bills passed.
There would have been governmental gridlock had the Republicans not controlled the Senate. Without control, they could not even get Reagan's agenda on the Senate calendar. In 1980, Republicans gained 12 seats and control of the Senate (54-46), although Democratic Senate candidates got nearly 3 million more votes than Republican candidates got. If in 1980 just 33,918 voters in five states (Idaho, Arizona, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia) had voted the other way, the Democrats would have held the Senate. This year, a change of just 43,000 votes in Missouri, Vermont, Rhode Island, Nevada, and Wyoming would have returned the Senate to the Democrats.
Before the fields again are white with daisies, Congress may have come to grips with the related problems of restoring the solvency of the Social Security system and strengthening the revenue base of the federal government. Talking to voters about Social Security during a campaign is like discussing trigonometry with King Lear while Lear is raging on the heath. The moment does not suit the subject. But now the test of the Democratic Party's fitness to govern will be its willingness to help formulate, rather than just fulminate about, the painful choices required.
Furthermore, Democrats must have the courage of their convictions about the need for new revenues for the rest of the government. The Republican Senate (read: Bob Dole, chairman of the Finance Committee) cannot be expected to initiate tax increases so that the Democratic Party can take credit for protecting the programs the taxes will finance. That is not an acceptable division of labor between the parties. Besides, Tip O'Neill and other Democratic leaders in the House now have a majority so large that even they should be able to lead it, occasionally.
There is today an oscillation of bewilderment in many democracies. The Democratic Party's mild resurgence is a pale shadow of Europe's pattern. From Stockholm to the Hague, from Paris to Athens, and now in Madrid, the left is being given a crack at the disagreeable business of reconciling yesterday's political promises and today's economic and demographic facts. In Europe, as in the United States, but even more so, the political argument is about how to make the welfare state compatible with the rate of economic growth necessary to finance the welfare state.
The temperateness of America's electorate last Tuesday was evidence against a particular doubt about the capacity of democratic government. Margaret Thatcher's and Reagan's policies, although different, both test the theory that democratic governments cannot mount sustained fights against inflation. An anti-recession policy is, politically, a piece of cake, involving the pleasure of stimulating demand. Anti- inflation policies produce pain -- and perhaps electoral repudiation -- faster than they produce success. Tuesday's results were too mixed to be called a repudiation.
The Economist notes that many recent elections have been won by the persons promising the most thorough change: Thatcher and Reagan, Mitterrand in France, Papandreou in Greece and now Gonzalez in Spain. Reagan's challenge for the remainder of this term is to remain identified with change while being identified with that which is to be changed -- government. It was, to say no more, peculiar for the campaigning head of the executive branch of the federal government to stand in front of a glistening Air Force One, inveighing against "Washington." He has worked that pedal on the organ quite enough.