Look on a map and you'll find North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, splendidly nestled among the Smokies, resembling an arrowhead aiming due west. That, of course, is an accident of geography, but politically the image is appropriate. The 11th is something of a symbolic point in the struggles of this significant year for the country.
Whether bellwether or not, it's one of those districts that will be hotly contested in the fall. Recent elections here have mirrored the nation, and the district stands today as one of those areas that will be watched closely by both political parties for clues to Ronald Reagan's strengths and weaknesses.
Two years ago this district came remarkably close to the final national presidental count. Reagan carried the 11th with 51 percent to Jimmy Carter's 45 percent. John Anderson received 3 percent. In 1976 Carter won the district with 54 percent to Gerald R. Ford's 46 percent. Each time the victorious president helped carry a congressman of his party to victory.
Today the 11th is represented by a young freshman Republican, William M. Hendon, an Asheville businessman who profited from the Reagan sweep of 1980.
And today, as in the past, the political currents flowing through this district are attracting national attention.
I don't mean to suggest that what I report here represents some grand political survey of North Carolina's 11th. It is a glimpse only, thanks to the Washington pollster, Peter D. Hart. He conducted a "focus session" exploring political attitudes of local citizens the other night. The session, which I attended, was one of Hart's continuing series of similar examinations of key congressional districts. It focused on Reagan and the budget.
As always, such an encounter comes as a welcome relief from the political posturing of Washington. It provides something even more rewarding: a reminder that people have a shrewd understanding of the issues facing the country, and do not easily fit into totally for-or-against categories.
That appears especially so here in Thomas Wolfe's old hometown.
From Washington, the picture seems clear enough. There is the president, standing virtually alone, and the rest.
The rest, that is, meaning the broad bipartisan group of congressional Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike, who are urging the president to change his proposed budget to reduce his projected massive deficits.
And the rest, of course, are right and Ronald Reagan wrong.
Thus, the dispensers of conventional wisdom in Washington.
In the long run that may be history's judgment, but seen from here that picture takes on a different dimension.
To people in this mountainous corner of North Carolina, the stark battle of the budget raging between president and Congress in far-off Washington does not seem so clear cut. Ask them to choose between Reagan and Congress, and they pick the president.
Their response suggests that, for the moment at least, Reagan is winning the political struggle. In people's minds here, blame for the country's economic problems lies more with the Congress than with the president.
Now, a critical political paradox:
While people don't yet tag Reagan with responsibility for hard times, or for making them worse, they fault him for the substance of his policies and the rigidity of his approach.
They hold no part of the budget immune from change, and reject the idea of any sacred cows. That specifically applies to defense spending and tax cuts, the two areas where the president has drawn a firm line.
Reagan stands, therefore, in danger of finding himself in a classic situation: Politically, he could win the battle and lose the war. While he is winning the immediate public opinion skirmish over whether he or the Congress is to blame for the economic Haynes Johnson BUDGET ---stalemate, it's clear he has an image problem. It is one that may take a greater toll in the days to come.
These are among the major impressions, and they are only that, which emerge from Hart's focus session.
Gathered around the table were six women and seven men ranging in age from 24 to "over 65." One was black. Among them were a clerk and a janitor, a banker and a realtor, a county agent and federal employe who just lost her job on the Blue Ridge Parkway because of a cutback in funds, an Episcopal minister and a welcome wagon hostess, a housewife and a pattern-maker. The minister turned out to be the most conservative.
The first area for general discussion involved their views on the nation. Asked whether they thought the condition of the country better, worse or about the same since Reagan has been president, only one, the black, thought it to be worse. The rest were divided in believing it either better or the same.
Considering the dramatic downturn in the nation's economy since Reagan's inauguration, with unemployment rising to post-World War II peaks and interest rates remaining high, that judgment in itself is a plus for the president. The reason seems to lie in their feelings about Reagan personally. He has inspired hope. They still want to believe in him.
Typically, J.D. Jackson, who has a real estate company, told how his business was suffering. He worries about conditions improving. Yet, "I find myself a little worse off," he said, "but attitude-wise I'm better off. I'm more optimistic about the future. I find myself having faith and trust in the administration policies versus what I felt two years ago."
Another said she felt herself "better off mentally."
There was also the sense, voiced by several, that the pain of the moment was unfortunate but necessary; it stems from past practices and policies in Washington. "America's been on a long binge," said Benjamin F. McKenzie, another businessman, "and now we're suffering part of the hangover."
When it came to the budget, several points were clear. They are quite aware of the massive budget deficits. Most know exactly the president's estimate of $91 billion in the red. Yet as of now they do not identify Reagan's economic program with contributing to the huge deficits. When assessing blame for that situation, they tend to put it on past administrations and particularly Congress. Congressional control of the purse strings was cited. If Congress wants to act, it can and should.
That didn't mean they were unconcerned about the deficits. Unlike the president, they would favor postponing the tax cuts to raise government revenues if necessary. And while they bent over backward in supporting a strong national defense, they were equally firm saying defense shouldn't be exempt from budget cuts.
At the end, they were asked what they had learned about Reagan during the budget debates. Suddenly the picture of the president became less favorable.
People spoke of his stubbornness and obstinacy. They used those words. He's got to be pragmatic, one said. There should be no sacred cows, said another. "He is not willing to compromise," said Mary Lloyd Frank, who calls herself a homemaker. "In my opinion he should."
Did they have any personal messages for the president?
Respectful all, but through their comments ran an undercurrent of criticism. It wasn't harsh, nor did it contain the sort of poison that enveloped recent presidents. But it was there.
Women were disappointed about the administration's handling of issues involving them. Questions about presidential flexibility and fairness were raised. Even one of his staunchest supporters had a bit of advice, couched in a plea:
"Please don't create the image that you don't care," said J.D. Jackson.
His point applies to the president's budget deliberations, but I suspect for Ronald Reagan it carries a political message that extends far beyond the present debates.