The Reagan program is still playing in Peoria. It is more than a little off key, with unemployment higher than most adults can remember. But they are not ready to shoot the piano player or even demand that he change his tune. They want to know how the piece ends.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that, after his first-year legislative triumphs, President Reagan is riding for a fall. The combination of deep recession, high unemployment and an approaching election will weaken his Republican support and embolden the Democratic opposition, it is said. But the conventional wisdom may be wrong.
What jobless carpenters, worried Caterpillar Tractor workers and nervous farmers were saying last week in the middle of frozen Illinois was echoed in seven other communities from New Haven to San Marcos, where Washington Post reporters traveled with members of Congress and interviewed their constituents.
The questioners went mainly to districts that gave Reagan his 1981 victories: the home bases of conservative and liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. The idea was to see if that support was being eroded by the economic adversities of this cruel winter.
If the sentiments in those communities and the comments of a dozen other House members interviewed by telephone are indicative, the mood of the returning Congress may be more amenable to the president's second-year program than the seriousness of the recession would suggest.
A lot more people are nervous about what Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) last year called "the riverboat gamble" of Reaganomics. But they are not yet cashing in their chips.
Larry Hobbs is a Houston painter and paperhanger; his wife, Ronda, is expecting their first child. Both were raised as Democrats, but they admire Ronald Reagan. "For the one year he's been in office," she says, "he's done a helluva job." "I'm a union man," her husband adds, "but with Carter, it seems that nothing much was accomplished....Reagan is more of a leader." He talks about unemployment and the big budget deficits and says he knows there are big risks. "He'll either make us or break us," he says of the president. "But he is a leader and I got tired of not having a leader."
There are pressures in many districts to write off Reaganomics as a failure. Kellar Blair, a black minister's wife in Augusta, Ga., says, "People are desperate. A lot of poor people are suffering, and the crime rate is bound to go up."
John Driscoll, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, finds "quite a bit of revulsion" with Reagan. "What turned most working people off," he says, "was the letdown after their first paychecks in October. There wasn't enough tax cut in them to buy a pack of cigarettes."
And in San Marcos, Tex., Ofelia Vasquez, the director of the community action program, pronounces herself "disillusioned. I think the rich are getting richer....It was a mistake to cut taxes at the same time they cut the budget. We should cut taxes when we can afford it."
But the feeling reporters heard most often was expressed by Karren Wolfe, 39, a housewife in Pomona, Calif. Raising eight children on the salary her husband makes as a pump company manager, she acknowledges that she got nervous when he talked about the firm's declining orders. But "we just have to hang in there and be hopeful it will work," she says of the Reagan economic plan.
Unemployment and cuts in social services concern her, she says, but "It's better to hurt a few than the whole nation. They should give Reagan a chance to cut inflation, get spending down, get government back where it should be."
That may seem easy to say from her standpoint. It is not easy for Morgan Jones of Augusta, Ga. Yet he says the same thing.
Jones, 40, watched about 70 fellow employes at Coastal Lumber Co. get pink slips for Christmas. Now the company is up for sale and Jones has to worry how long he can hold onto his $15,000-a-year sales manager job. For the first time in his life, he may become an unemployment statistic, a victim of the high interest rates that have crippled the housing and construction industries.
But Jones, who voted for fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1980, does not blame Reagan. "He's the president and we've got to go along with him," Jones says.
As for his own problems, he says, "Someone's got to sacrifice, and I'm no better than anyone else. I'm just caught in a snowball rolling down the hill. Losing my job may be part of what it takes to turn the country around. I'm optimistic. I believe some good may come of it."
"It's a strange phenomenon," Jones' congressman, Rep. Doug Barnard Jr. (D-Ga.), says of his many conversations with people who echo Jones' views.
One of the Boll Weevil Democrats whose votes gave Reagan his budget and tax victories in the House last year, Barnard says he has kept his ear tuned for sounds of rebellion, and "No one has told me, 'You botched it up.' Most understand it still hasn't gotten under way yet. And those who supported the program can't be faulted until it's proven a failure."
What is true of this Boll Weevil Democrat is also true of two Gypsy Moth Republicans from normally Democratic Youngstown and New Haven, who went home nervous about their support of the president and come back prepared to go a little further with him.
It is true of two freshman Republicans from Texas and California, who beat Democratic incumbents on Reagan's coattails in 1980 and will be facing the voters on their own this November. They are prepared to roll the dice on the Reagan program, gambling that it will pan out politically.
Even the veteran moderate Democrat from Lyndon B. Johnson's home district, Rep. Jake Pickle, who voted against the 1981 budget and tax cuts, is far from ready to lead a crusade against Reaganomics.
At an Austin high school assembly, early one day, he tells the seniors, "I think the administration is going to have to make some crucial decisions. They cannot get our economy back in shape by following the course we're on."
But at a Lions Club lunch, a member hollers out, "Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright have been running things for 25 years. Let's give someone else a chance." And Pickle responds, "I think we are heading in the right direction. We should cut the federal bureaucracy....I do not think 1982 is the same thing as 1932...or 1964."
Still later, he tells a reporter, "I'm going to try to cooperate by making additional, reasonable cuts. You can't operate like 20 years ago. But I'm not going to try to solve all our problems by cutting social programs."
Such comments give weight to the words of Peoria's congressman, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who says the second year of Reaganomics will be more difficult to push through Congress, but not impossible.
Michel can see the economic problems of America in microcosm every time he goes home. Unemployment, pushing 10 percent, "is the highest in my lifetime," says Mayor Dick Carver, a Republican and Reagan defender in the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The Pabst brewery was ordered closed on the last day of 1981, following Hiram Walker's distillery out of town. Caterpillar, the biggest employer, had ordered the first large-scale layoffs in 20 years, even before it lost an $80 million contract to sell pipelayers to the Soviet Union when Reagan imposed trade sanctions as a protest against the military takeover in Poland.
"I have to be a bit careful," Michel says, "with unemployment up and Pabst closing down. I don't subscribe to the notion that unemployment is the only way to attack inflation. But I do say that we are paying the price for the excesses of the past, and you don't turn things around overnight. Come the spring winds of March and April, I want to see things turning around."
He is not the only one who measures in months, if not weeks, the tolerance for Reaganomics. Donald A. Johnson, the executive secretary of the West Central Illinois Building Trades Council and the director of labor for former Illinois governor Dan Walker (D), says that his dues-paying membership has dropped from 14,000 in 1980 to 10,000 now because of the depression in construction.
But, he says, "I have a positive outlook. I think if we can get interest rates down two or three points, there's a lot of projects ready to go. I'm confident if that happens by spring, we'll have enough jobs for our people."
And if not? "If not," he says, "we'll really wish we had a candidate to run against Bob Michel," who got past the January filing deadline without an opponent.
In the back room of Sambo's Restaurant in Little Rock, four men are having late afternoon coffee. Three voted for Reagan in 1980, and the fourth would switch to support him now. But they think the economy is lousy. "If it weren't for the government work" at the local Air Force base, says electrical contractor Jimmy Stinson, "there wouldn't be anything." "He's not trying to hurt the middle income people," realtor B.J. Choate says of Reagan, "but that's what his program is doing right now." "It's tilted toward the wealthy," Warren Shell, owner of a transport firm, agrees, "but he doesn't mean it that way." Willis Sanders, a heating-air conditioning repairman, says nothing will imnprove "until his program has a chance to work. Nothing else has helped with inflation," he observes, "but if he fails, we're going to have a depression."
Ed Bethune, the Republican who represents these four men in the House, says that every time he begins to wonder if Reagan can sustain momentum for his program, "I come out here and they say he's on the right track...in his effort to change some fundamental attitudes about working, saving and investing. There's a feeling this will ultimately help the economy more than just changing the budget."
But Bethune said he worries that the Reagan program is "destined to fail unless it means prosperity for black America as well as white America." Late last year, he rounded up 38 Republican signatures on a letter to the president warning that they would not support more social spending cuts unless Reagan ends what Bethune calls the "corporate welfare" contained in tax breaks and other business subsidies.
It makes no sense to him, he says, to cut the staffing in Little Rock's Employment Service office, when joblessness is rising and that office places one of every five job-seekers in the city.
Concern about the fairness of the Reagan program pops up time and again, and not just from critical Democrats. Rep. Lawrence J. DeNardis (R-Conn.), one of the Gypsy Moths and a freshman in what was a Democratic district, worries about people like William Elder, 70, an office employe in New Haven, who says, "Reagan has forgotten the days when he worked for $30 a week. He is taking from the poor and giving to the rich; that's all he's doing."
"To the extent that spreads," DeNardis says, "I'll be in trouble. But so far, a significant majority approves the cuts of 1981, and they want more in 1982, if they are within reason."
Wink Harris, a Winder, Ga., banker, tells his congressman, Doug Barnard, that he is afraid Americans will tire of Reaganomics just as they tired of Vietnam. "The American people are very impatient," he says. "We were impatient in Vietnam." Barnard soothes him with the reply that "it's too early to fault the program. In June or July, we can judge more accurately." A young businessman chimes in to urge tenacity in Washington. "Every time I get the bitter taste of the medicine in my mouth," he says, "the government makes me spit it out. Once you get used to the taste, you might as well swallow it."
Many of the issues that are at the center of debate in Washington are barely on the radar screen in the precincts Post reporters visited. Tax hikes, most places, would be an unwelcome surprise, but few voters seem to believe they are imminent. As for talk of a $100 billion deficit, "it doesn't particularly trouble me," says James E. Bird of Highlands, Tex. "I can't really comprehend it."
Interest rates are a worry, but often reporters heard them being blamed on the Federal Reserve Board, or past spending practices, rather than on Reagan's policies. Poland and other foreign policy issues were a minor topic of discussion.
It is the economy that shapes the attitudes of the returning Congress, a fact that was confirmed by telephone conversations with a dozen additional members of the House.
From a northern California district where high interest rates have caused 25 percent unemployment in some lumber-oriented counties, Republican Gene Chappie says, "On balance, there's still a strong sense of support....The timber folks are the most emphatic about hanging tough, even though they're eating a bundle. They say, 'Let's give it a little time to see how it washes.' "
From center city Philadelphia, Democrat William H. Gray III says that "Unemployment is just going through the roof, and, if that isn't enough to frighten people, this is perceived as a racist administration to boot."
But in the Bronx, Democrat Mario Biaggi finds "those affected by the cuts are talking, but mostly there's a strange silence about them. The feeling I get is they want to give the president more time; they think he's trying. The cuts will not come as easy the second time around, but they sure don't want us to raise their taxes instead of cutting more."
In Oklahoma City, Republican Mickey Edwards agrees that "People will be upset if the president asks for higher taxes. He convinced a lot of them that if you want to get the economy going, you have to leave money in people's pockets. If he turns around, he'll have a hard time convincing them that was wrong."
But in Wilmington, Del., Republican Tom Evans, another staunch Reagan man, says "People will give the president time only if they think the program is fair. And one way to do that is to close some tax loopholes."
If economics is one axis of the returning Congress, politics is the other, for everyone realizes that the election is a scant 10 months away. And there are particular pressures on the junior Republicans, not yet entrenched in their districts, whose unwavering loyalty was one of the striking features of Reagan's first-year success.
Most of them are looking pretty healthy. In 1980, Jack Fields (R) ousted veteran liberal Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D) in an epic and expensive battle in a working-class, heavily unionized Houston district. So far, he has no opponent for 1982.
Fields sees his mission in simple terms: keep cutting. "We have not cut one dollar from the federal budget," he tells Rotarians. "All we have done is reduce the rate of growth....Last year was the first step in a mile run. We've got to go much further. We've got to cut entitlements."
Out in San Dimas, Calif., another GOP freshman, David Dreier, is in a much shakier political situation, sweating out a court challenge to a Democratic redistricting plan that would throw him in against a fellow Republican.
But Dreier is betting his future on Reaganomics. "It is necessary," he tells the Chamber of Commerce, "for us to suffer through this period of adversity before we see the economy improve." And one of his listeners, Bill Newman, is inclined to agree.
"I think he's doing pretty good," Newman says of the president, "but he's hurting the people." His business, Bonita Plumbing, "is down to two people now where we used to have six....But anything was better than the peanut man."
In New Haven, Larry DeNardis won an open Democratic seat in 1980 and has garnered gobs of favorable publicity by snagging federal aid for local projects even in a tight-budget year and for showing "independence" by voting against some Reagan military programs.
Now, this Gypsy Moth says, Reagan will have to make his own cuts in defense if he wants the votes of 25 to 30 northern urban Republicans. "We are not playing games," he insists.
A private Democratic poll shows DeNardis popular even among some Reagan critics, but Tony Skiff, the campaign manager for one of two Democrats seeking to oppose the freshman, says that economic failure will make DeNardis a victim.
Calling the economy "a disaster waiting to happen," Skiff says the public's present patience "can only go on so long." And Alderman Charles H. Allen III, who abandoned the Democrats to support DeNardis in 1980, says his black constituents are suffering too much from Reagan's food stamp and fuel assistance cutbacks.
"People are falling between the cracks," he says. "And I'm having to explain more and more. Come November, people won't split hairs; they won't distinguish Larry as a 'good' Republican."
In Youngstown, Rep. Lyle Williams is a second-term Republican in another normally Democratic, heavily unionized district. But he is less secure politically. Unemployment has been ranging from 12 to 15 percent, and Mahoning County Democratic chairman Don L. Hanni says that if former Youngstown mayor Peter Richley runs against Williams, "he will whip his ass."
Williams, who has been back in the district every single weekend since he was elected in 1978, is cultivating a repuation for independence. At the Struthers Senior Citizens Home, he tells worried voters, "I want you to know that, regardless of what Ronald Reagan says or does, your congressman is going to fight for you....We're going to take care of senior citizens. I support the president and his economic program when I can, but if it doesn't work, we'll turn around and do something else."
Later he tells a reporter, "The senior citizen community is scared to death. We've got to keep them happy this year, and get into the defense budget and make some cuts. There shouldn't be any sacred cows."
The mayor, Democrat George Vukovich, expresses sympathy with the president. "I have to do the same thing Reagan is doing," he says. "When you talk about cutting social programs, all you're talking about is a readjustment period. You have to ask yourself: did they get out of hand?"
But Edith Plevniak, a housewife who is drinking a can of beer while clipping grocery coupons from The Youngstown Vindicator, says Reagan "is not doing as well as I expected" when she voted for him in 1980, feeling she couldn't "stand any more wishy-washy politics. He isn't as well-informed as I thought he was. I think he's spoken a lot louder than he should on some things, and the people he surrounded himself with are always getting themselves in trouble."
"More conservative than most," by her own estimation, she says Reagan means well and is an honest man. "But I think he's antagonized too many people--mostly the elderly and the deprived. I don't see why he tries to make them so mad."
And Williams worries, "My seat was a Democratic one for 42 years, and they want it back....So much depends on Reaganomics. I think it will work. I'm just not sure it will work in time."