Before his dramatic speech last Tuesday night, the president's highest recorded favorable rating, in any published poll, had been a very healthy 83 percent. After the response, both in and out of the hall, to the speech, who can say for sure to what dizzy heights the president's favorability had climbed by breakfast time on Wednesday? Ronald Reagan may right now be 92 percent in the shade.
For the time being at least, the conventional wisdon -- as to the relative political positions of the president and his congressional opposition -- is simple and shrewd. Ronald Reagan is very much in control, in the driver's seat, and in just about any other place he might choose to be politically. By contrast the congressional Democrats can be found in one of two adjoining ZIP codes: either in Great Disarray or just plain old Disarray. By now, according to most written analysis, the Democratic congressional leadership must have met all the residency requirements to qualify to vote in Disarray. ttThese are very difficult times for the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. Today, the Democratic leadership is probably not in an especially good energy field. They have recently been forced to confront another of leadership's lonely lessons: When the other fellow is at, or above, 83-percent approval, and you are the opposition leadership, you frequently find yourself with an acute shortage of followership. And what followership does remain is often busy giving interviews about the shortcomings of your leadership.
For those Democrats trying to figure out how they got where they are now and what they might do about it, it would be constructive to recall the early months of the presidency of Richard Nixon. Ah, would sigh most Democrats, those were heady times. In 1969, Richard Nixon became the first elected American president in 120 years to take office with both houses of the Congress controlled by the opposition party.
Here was an essentially orthodox conservative Republican president confronting a Congress loaded with decorated veterans of the war on poverty.Nixon lacked Gerald Ford's openness and Ronald Reagan's easy charm; the Hill Democrats lacked all humility. Both sides were spoiling for a fight, which is what they got over the congressional appropriations bills in the first years.
Like good conservative presidents once could be counted up to do, Richard Nixon set out what just be done to any inherited Democratic budget: Balance it and cut it. This, it must be remembered, was quite some time before Nixon would take us off the gold standard and put the People's Republic of China on our dance cards.
The Hill Democrats would have none of that "heartless meat-ax" approach to the budget. In short order, the annual appropriations bills in both houses were transformed into morality plays. Appropriations votes were elevated by, and for, Democrats into values unto themselves like the Marshall Plan or the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One could prove generosity and commitment by voting for full, or even for fuller, funding for any program, the stated objective of which was to help people.
All the time a Democratic legislator could feel good about opposing that partisan Richard Nixon who had, after all, proclaimed during the 1952 crusade agains the Truman administration: "What we need in Washington is a president who instead of covering up, cleans up." When Nixon's own cover-up was later revealed, the higher-spending Democrats had all the validation most of them needed. Nixon had been wrong about G. Harrolde Carswell and wrong about G. Gordon Liddy. So chances were pretty good he was wrong about federal spending, too.
In addition, the appropriations votes as a permanent-values approach to legislating offered another timesaving feature. Between 1960 and 1979, the number of domestic federal programs grew from 150 to 498. Government became large and complicated. By voting more for "people's" programs most legislators could win praise for being compassionate and progressive.
That Democratic habit acquired in the first months of Richard Nixon's first term was never shaken until last November. Jimmy Carter boasted that during his term federal aid to education increased by 73 percent.
Today's Democrats in the Congress must live with the mornings-after of those earlier salad days. Reduced numbers depleted self-confidence are one-price. The evidence is everywhere to see. You don't really think Richard Nixon planned it this way, do you?