In politics, my savvy precinct committeewoman used to point out, perceptions are often realities. When a cause or candidate appears to be invincible, then very rarely does strong opposition seem to emerge. Most of us will recall from recent American history the nomination of Justice Sandra O'Connor to the Supreme Court. As soon as her Senate confirmation was seen as inevitable, even the formerly fearless gladiators of the New Right mostly retired from the fray. Basically the New Right dropped its opposition to Judge O'Connor like a bad habit. In our conservative Senate, not a single conservative senator voted against the O'Connor nomination. That's a political reality.
A separate political perception in the fall of 1981, that the Reagan administration now has more problems than it has solutions, could very well mean the Democrats will keep control of the House of Representatives in the fall of 1982. Now is the period, just about a year before the actual election, when citizens decide whether or not to become candidates for Congress. With the statutory ceilings on campaign contributions, and facing the legislated advantages of incumbency, most challengers must be prepared to devote a full year to their congressional campaigns. Far more than Republicans, the Democrats are dependent almost totally upon the individual quality and caliber of their congressional candidates. To win, Democratic House candidates must generally have strong local identity and considerable personal appeal, because they can expect only minimal assistance from the national party.
That is not the case with the Republicans, who have built, in recent years, the nation's most formidable political organization. (Democrats have "machines," you will remember, while Republicans have organizations.) During 1979-80, the three principal GOP committees--National, House, and Senate --combined to raise more than $111 million. Their Democratic counterpart groups, with ostensible control then of both the White House and the Congress, collected less than $19 million.
For House candidates, that Republican edge did not stop with the dollar sign. GOP candidates were provided with technical and professional campaign help from the national party. Research, issues, and advertising assistance to candidates probably all contributed to produce both a certain Republican similarity in the campaigning and a certain Republican cohesion in office. In 1980, Republicans from the courthouse to the White House campaigned on the same platform: cutting the size, scope and spending of the federal government; strengthening our national defenses and stopping inflation. As usual, the Democrats had no such single message, and their candidates, as always, went one-on-one with their constituencies.
Democrats were the original disciples of the "all-business-is-local" rule of political survival. As a result, San Francisco Democrats sound very little like San Antonio Democrats and not even much like San Diego Democrats. There is, of course, a certain irony in the party that has for so long advocated national solutions to most public problems providing virtually no national aid to its candidates for national office, while the pro-local-options GOP overwhelms, from Washington, its own candidates with prepared press releases, position papers and lapel pins.
Like most of us, candidates for Congress are not eager to make fools of themselves. They are willing to risk defeat, but they do not court humiliation. Before most decide to run, they seek the judgment of respected friends. Sixty days ago, most potential Democratic House candidates would have been advised by such friends to concentrate on their law practices or to head up the special gifts section of the Community Chest drive. Then, the race looked hopeless: Ronald Reagan was a political wizard and 1982 was going to be a large Republican year.
Now things look very different to a number of people. Not unexpectedly, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, is one of them. Tony Coelho sounds lately like he means it when he predicts a 1982 gain of 10 House seats for his party. Or, then, he could be simply saying such things to persuade some Democrats to become House candidates, because he knows that perceptions, in politics, can become realities.