While President Reagan won a spectacular presidential victory and swept Walter Mondale, the Republican Party certainly failed to sweep Congress, the state capitols and the courthouses of America.
Republicans lost two seats in the U.S. Senate and added only 15 seats in the House. The party gained only two governorships. But perhaps most disconcerting of all, of the 6,243 state legislative seats contested on Tuesday, Republicans lost 58 percent of them.
The Republican Party supposedly is more sophisticated, has more resources and is better organized than the Democratic Party. But with all our sophisticated computer gadgetry and vast resources, history shows Republicans in the past 20 years have become really good at only one thing: electing presidents.
With the emergence of the South as something of a Republican stronghold, President Reagan's solid record on economic issues and his ability to communicate that record, Republicans have yearned for a "realignment" of the electorate, one that would speed the demise of the New Deal coalition. But that did not happen last Tuesday, despite the epic proportions of Reagan's reelection victory and the clear message that suggests about such issues as taxing, spending and a strengthened defense.
Why? Because the party has become so enchanted with winning the presidency that it has not focused on winning control of Congress -- which has blunted many of the president's initiatives -- and state and local governments. The Republican Party has the "Eisenhower Syndrome": if we just elect the right superhero to the White House, everything else beyond the Potomac will fall into place, and we will all live happily ever after.
But it hasn't worked that way. Just look at the results. Of the past nine presidential elections, Republicans have won six. But except for the GOP's taking control of the Senate in 1980, both houses of Congress have been controlled by the Democrats since 1954.
And the record is even worse in the states. In 1956, Republicans controlled both chambers in 17 statehouses; Republicans now control both chambers in only 13 states. Democrats controlled both chambers in 19 statehouses in 1956; they now control 31.
It's not only on major issues that the two major political parties disagree, it's on election strategy as well. The Democrats focus on elective offices where decisions are made that affect people where it counts -- at home. Just listen to Jesse Jackson on the subject: "If you can get your share of legislators, mayors, sheriffs, school board members, tax assessors and dog catchers, you can live with whoever is in the White House."
If Ronald Reagan's victories have taught us one thing, it is this: focus on people instead of narrowly defined special interest groups. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won because he correctly perceived that most people felt the pendulum had swung too far in one direction, and it was time for it to swing back toward the center. Walter Mondale and the Democrats lost in 1984 because they tried to play special interest politics one time too many. Now both parties face a challenge beyond 1984: how to attract young people who will build their future from the ground up, beginning in the courthouse and concluding with the White House.
There are over 30 million people in their twenties in America today, people who are not yet particularly aligned with either party and are more issue-oriented than they are party-oriented. The race between the parties now is for the allegiance of those voters. For two reasons, the Republican Party should focus on Congress and state and local government -- government close to home -- to succeed.
First, involvement in state and local government should appeal to young people. Government close to home is generally more responsive and more easily controlled. With the renewed interest in federalism, young people should see the trend toward more local authority and seek increased opportunities by taking control of government instead of having government control them.
Second, state government serves as a kind of farm club for Congress. Nearly two-thirds of its 435 members have served in state legislatures. If we can attract young, upwardly mobile people to become Republicans and perhaps run for office, the party will increase its chances of controlling Congress.
And that opportunity should appeal to the large number of young people who are becoming increasingly conservative. The Democrats who control Congress have blocked the president's efforts to impose constitutional taxing and spending restraints, to allow voluntary prayer in school, and to upgrade America's defense capability. Congress is out of sync with the American public. By focusing on young people the Republican Party should marshal its resources and seize the opportunity to drive that message home.
But if we want to capitalize on President Reagan's leadership and an obstructionist Congress to become the majority party in America, part of our strategy should be to take a page from the Democrats' book and focus on government close to home. For until the Republican Party puts in place a political apparatus that extends from the courthouse to the White House, we will continue to elect generals with sound battle plans, but no troops to lead into battle.