To the extent the voters strengthen or diminish President Reagan's governing conservative coalition in Congress, today's election will be a referendum on Reaganomics. But no ballot fashioned this fall provides Americans an opportunity to express the complicated kinds of political messages many would like to deliver.
After talking with voters in all sections of the country, a reporter returns home convinced that people want to stay the course with the president and to force him to make a midcourse correction in his policies.
This is not as paradoxical as it seems. People know that, long after this election has passed into history, fundamental economic problems will continue to bedevil the country. And they are not being addressed by the current national political debate.
Whether in big business or in organized labor, in small business or in farming, people recognize that America appears to be in transition. Basic heavy industries that provided much of the nation's wealth and jobs are being replaced by something different. This fact raises major questions about how best to prepare the country for its next phase and how to retrain perhaps millions of workers affected. Another fact emerges from this long look at America today.
This economic dislocation has shaken people everywhere. It has torn away illusions about regions or individuals being immune from recession. In this respect, today's economic climate differs significantly from others over the last generation.
On previous national journeys, you always could find extremes of wealth and poverty in proximity. The Harlems and Park Avenues of America provided sharp contrasts between failure and success. But for most in the middle, the story of the last 20 years has been one of increasing material comfort and growing insulation from economic worries. That is not the case today.
For the first time, an entire spectrum of society is affected. If not themselves, they know someone who has been seriously hurt: who either has lost a job or a business or stands in danger of suffering one or both of these blows.
Naturally, that experience is profoundly disturbing. It also carries political connotations. Two scenes, out of many, are vivid.
In Greenville, S.C., in a church annex, volunteers were beginning to serve unemployed men, women, and children lunch in a soup line.
One of the volunteers, a retired textile executive who survived the Great Depression, was talking about a church board meeting he recently attended. People present, he recalled, kept mentioning the name of someone they knew who has been badly hit by the recession. "That's when it comes home to you how serious it is," the man said. He had other reasons: his son, a professional, has just lost his job.
The other scene was in a similar setting. In Everett, Wash., the anteroom of the Volunteers of America office was crowded with people waiting for the daily distribution of free food to begin. Seated to the side was a middle-aged couple. The woman was holding her husband's hand, and his head was slumped in dejection. Written words cannot convey the picture of desolation and defeat. They had come to an end, and knew not where to turn.
You can duplicate such scenes today across the country. The new realities of these new hardships are causing people to reexamine their views about political and economic questions.
What comes through is a hope, expressed everywhere, that the pain of the present will prove to have been a necessary element in eventually leading the nation to better times, to a period in which inflation and unemployment are brought under control. At the same time, an overwhelming majority voices doubts about specific components of Reagan's approach.
One word keeps coming up voluntarily during conversations about the president's economic program and its effect on the country: Balance. Even Ronald Reagan's strongest supporters, those who would like to vote for him again, will say his program has been out of balance.
Hardly a single business executive interviewed, for instance, favors the kinds of defense spending increases Reagan advocates. Feelings against massive defense spending increases are so uniformly strong that it is impossible to believe that the next Congress will support the president if he continues to seek them. Most business executives also disagree with the way his tax cuts were originally put in place.
Larry Ansin is typical. He is president of Joan Fabrics, in Lowell, Mass., a firm described as the world's largest producer of upholstery fabrics. Ansin ardently supports Reagan and his basic approach. "It's fantastic," he says. "It's a cold bath. We all needed it." But he is equally firm as he ticks out policy changes he would like to see Reagan make.
"One, defense spending. We must cut back on defense spending. Two, we must tighten up on tax loopholes for the wealthy. It must be done. Third, we must look at areas to increase our taxes. We've got to balance out better."
Interestingly, the sense that policies are out of balance extends beyond a political context. Another common refrain involves the belief that all Americans share the blame for current troubles. We've been too greedy and too selfish, and now we're paying the price for such excesses.
"We're all spoiled rotten, everyone of us is," said Bob Long, a merchant in Everett and one of the few who has done well there recently. "We all grew so damn rich it's sickening."
Long, also a Reagan supporter, frankly acknowledges that one of the reasons he likes the president is that he personally has profited from Reagan-backed tax breaks.
"They've made a wealthy man out of me," he says, but then typically adds: "I believe in Reagan's philosophy, but he's come down too hard on people. They can't handle it that quick. It's been a little too extreme."
Similarly, others criticize the Democrats for failing to insure that a necessary balance was maintained. "When they made the cuts they hurt a lot of innocent people," says Ron Proul, another Everett merchant who voted for Reagan, and who recently has been forced to file for bankruptcy.
"I look back now and say there wasn't as much wisdom applied. It was a little too severe. I think the Democrats didn't keep the balance wheel going between the extreme liberals and the extreme conservatives. They didn't force them to meet somewhere in the middle and come out in balance."
Of all those interviewed, perhaps William D. Ruckleshaus best puts into words a political message for this day that others have been expressing.
Ruckelshaus, a Republican who earned national fame when he resigned as Richard M. Nixon's deputy attorney general during the Watergate scandal rather than fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, and now a top executive for Weyerhaeuser Co., assesses the political situation facing the president and the country this way:
"It's curious. You'd think, given the economic turndown and the extent to which program cuts quite obviously have disproportionately affected the poor, that there would be quite a backlash against what the president is doing. It is building, but it is nothing like what I would have expected. I attribute a lot of it to personal affection for him that he can get away with pretty outrageous kinds of programs and still have people like him. The impact of personality on politics is something I think people way underestimate. He is a prime example of it.
"Of course, that good will can dissipate in a hurry. What I hope happens is that we get by this election without some kind of devastation. That is, you could get a false signal from the voters that everything is rosy. And that's not so. Or you could have a calamity for the Republicans, a landslide against them that would cause a stalemate in government for the next critical two years. But if we get just enough of a shift so that he knows he's in trouble and has to make changes, I think the country will be better off for it.
"The elements of what he ought to do are apparent: they involve items in the budget he has not touched, Social Security and entitlements and defense spending. Then if he adjusts some on the tax side, I think you can begin to see a real narrowing of the budget deficit in time, with more national confidence building and a slower but sustainable recovery. But we haven't started it yet. If we don't, it could tip over into something much worse."
That last point underscores what nearly everyone you meet outside of Washington says. They are apprehensive about the future. They feel that, as someone said: "A lot of people are on hold." They don't believe the country can long afford to be on hold, and they are looking beyond this Election Day for solutions.
It's clear what they want. They are waiting for an end to the recession and all the fear and uncertainty it generates.
It also seems clear what they do not want: not dramatic change, nor radical change, nor even Republican change or Democratic change, but a more tempered shift in direction that will head the nation into a more certain course.