As its more candid members privately concede, the Reagan administration's record on jobs is a political disaster. It is also a human tragedy. Yet, with just over seven weeks left in the 1982 campaign, the Democrats have yet to mount what could even remotely be called any political offensive on the unemployment issue. That failure, if it does reflect a lack of real faith in any Democratic answer to unemployment, could be the real political story of 1982: that the Democrats have lost both their steam and their self-confidence.
The numbers cannot be ignored. In the first full year that the Reagan-Kemp-Roth tax bill was the law of the land, the nation's unemployment rate grew by one-third. Among factory workers, the jobless rate grew twice that fast. One person in five in the construction industry was out of work. These are the blue-collar and hard-hat American voters who gave their votes and the presidency to Jimmy Carter and then dropped him in 1980 for Ronald Reagan. These are the voters the Democrats should be courting and welcoming back from their flirtation with the GOP.
But where is any Democratic jobs bill? Where are the campaign speeches slamming the insensitivity of, and the administration's favoritism toward the Rodeo Drive crowd? For 50 years, Democrats were the majority party in the nation largely because Democrats were seen as being better for the economy, that is jobs, than the Republicans. In 1980, the Democrats were routed in an election in which the economy was the central issue. Understandably, that defeat shook them. But until now, nobody has suggested that 1980 permanently eliminated the party's self-confidence about its ability to manage the nation's economy.
We are now in a campaign where the economic news is so bad that the administration has no political alternative to blaming the past. The future is not even bright enough to make promises about. So the Republicans try mightily to pin all blame on earlier administrations and Congresses controlled by the majority party. The president himself runs against the government and the "last 40 years." The Democrats suggest, but they do not urge, a "mid-course correction," which seems to say: the administration is headed in basically the correct direction, but just a shade to the left would be better. Calibrations instead of confrontration.
The Democrats, for some mysterious reason which I hope someone will explain, knock the administration for the federal deficits instead of for letting people suffer without jobs or hope. What words of encouragement or ideas for improvement do the Democrats offer to the 2,966,000 Americans who had a job to go to a year ago today but who do not have a job to go to tomorrow morning? As their unemployment benefits run out, as as they, in desperation, are unable to sell their homes, what "mid-course corrections" should these Americans make? Should they be cheered at all the activity on the stock market?
The administration merely offers more ideology, unaffected by the casualty figures each month brings. The Democrats, without optimism and confidence, offer little more. A political party without self-confidence is not an attractive sight. But millions of people without confidence or encouragement about the future is truly tragic. If the Democrats seek to lead, now is the time and the test. And the issue is jobs and people.