Before we leave 1984 politics entirely, let us look back for one moment at the election we did not have. I am referring to "The Ideological Election" that my friend Richard Reeves wrote about in the Feb. 19 cover story of The New York Times Magazine and that I wrote about in the New Year's Day editions of the Washington Post under the headline, "America Appears Deeply Divided, Anxious to Vote."
Both Reeves and I got our second thoughts onto paper before Election Day, he in a Nov. 4 article in the Times magazine and I in a Post story that day, forecasting the landslide that would see President Reagan carrying almost all voting groups and states.
What remains to be explained is what happened to that sharply polarized election that both of us smart guys -- and many others -- thought was coming.
To answer the question, you have to understand what it was that we thought was the source of the deep division. The answer was Ronald Reagan's philosophy of government -- or more precisely, anti-government.
Reeves quoted Reagan's favorite line, "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." V. Lance Tarrance, the Houston-based Republican pollster, said in that Jan. 1 Post interview that "in 1980, Reagan launched a real heart-and-soul debate about what government is to do in this country. That debate continued in 1982, and it will reach its climax in 1984. Backers of the liberal doctrine will fight with all they have to preserve the kind of government they built up before Reagan came in. Conservatives will try to accelerate the change Reagan has started."
What made the choice real for people -- and provided the motivation -- was that Reagan had proved that he meant what he said. He cut back the growth of domestic programs substantially in the first year and, in the second, began a concerted drive to spin many of those programs off to state and local governments. The commitment to simultaneous tax cuts and an accelerated defense buildup made it clear that there would be less and less of the national budget left for domestic government and the welfare state.
Reagan's continuing rhetoric underlined the direction the president was headed. As recently as July 4, on a trip to Decatur, Ala., I heard Reagan say, "I've often had the feeling that if . . . we in government . . . just slipped out and closed the doors, turned the key, and disappeared for a while, it would take you a long time to miss us."
But when the campaign began in earnest, that kind of wholehearted anti-Washington rhetoric was toned down. Reagan got kind of squishy-soft on government. His favorite sources switched from Calvin Coolidge and Friedrich von Hayek to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the inventor of Big Government, and John F. Kennedy, the exponent of energetic governmental intervention.
As Reeves noted, the mythical Martian might have been confused by what he heard coming out of Reagan's mouth during the Louisville debate: "We're taking care of more people than . . . ever . . . before by any administration. . . . We are today subsidizing housing for more than 10 million people, and we're going to continue along that line. . . . I will never stand for a reduction of the Social Security benefits."
Walter F. Mondale helped blunt the edge of the "sharp choice" election by offering his tax- increase proposal, not as a straightforward necessity for financing the welfare state, but for the traditionally conservative purpose of reducing the federal deficit. Even then, Reagan used it as a way to whip middle-class voters back into line.
They were, as always, the swing voters in the election, and Reagan won their support by increasing margins as the year progressed. Last December, when the Washington Post- ABC News Poll had the Reagan-Mondale race a 48-45 percent tossup, the $20,000-a-year mark was the dividing line between Republican and Democratic families. Above that line, Reagan led, 58-37 percent. Below it, Mondale was in front.
But by the time this fall came, the dividing line had moved down to the $10,000-$12,000 income level, and any prospect of a Mondale majority had disappeared. Middle-class voters, those clustered around the $20,000 mark, gave Reagan the margin of support by which he carried the country.
The "ideological" elements did not disappear entirely, of course. Self-described conservatives gave Reagan 81 percent of their votes in the ABC exit poll, up substantially from 1980, while only 25 percent of the self-described liberals said they supported him -- about the same as four years before and a percentage that some liberals will find astonishing.
That may suggest that conservatives paid attention to Reagan's actions, while liberals were lulled by his words. But in post-election comments, many conservative activists blamed the White House staff for blurring the message, asserting that Reagan's blandness may have boosted his own margins but failed to energize the electorate to support Republicans in congressional elections.
Whether that is true, we will never know. But the "ideological election" many of us expected did not occur.