By the time a bleary-eyed nation straggled off to bed Tuesday evening, the juice had been chewed out of every midterm issue several times over.
Comment had become an exercise in verbal robotics. Did the voters "stay the course"? Or "send the president a message"? Would there be a "mid-course correction"? And if there were, would it bring back "those disastrous old Democrat policies" warned of by Republican commercials? Would we have "gridlock"?
We poured more money into this midterm election than ever -- a half-billion dollars, it's estimated -- and got less pleasure and surprise out of it than expected. But this verbal prefabrication and paralysis is the inevitable byproduct of living-room elections: elections of, by and for television in which it is the triumph of the "media consultants" to get us to view the finer processes of a vibrant democracy through their eyes.
Behind the verbal smog, there were, all the same, a few facts.
Fact One: the Republicans held the Senate. Significance: modest. There were two Democratic seats at stake for every Republican. Probabilities governed the result.
The news about the Senate is, however, encouraging for those of us who think good senators do not necessarily wear tight party collars. The survival of John Danforth in Missouri and David Durenberger in Minnesota is good news. So, on the other side, is the triumph of Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. What one wants in senators is temperament, style and judgment, not ideology. Here are three deserving survivors who are actually senatorial.
Fact Two: The Republicans got skinned in the House -- yes, skinned: the usual loss for parties in power in a first midterm election is 12 to 15 seats, and in a good year far fewer.
Significance: times are harder than the fortunate majority realize; and the House is, as it was designed to be, a more responsive barometer of hard times than the Senate. When times are hard, voters vote Democratic. This is not a calculated doctrinal response but a matter of reflex, experience and instinct. It has no precise meaning except, "Help!"
If Ronald Reagan were a prime minister and ours were a parliamentary system, he would be out today. But it isn't, and he isn't. He will find that the "boll weevil" muster in the new House is thinner. But most of the economic issues were already framed, even foreordained, by the structural problems of the federal budget.
Even if the Republicans had lost fewer House seats, the outlook would be the same: the correction of a politically unsustainable imbalance between defense and social spending and an anxious search for revenue sources to plug the threatening deficits produced by Reaganomics.
Fact Three: the Democrats bagged nine governorships, more than expected. Significance: they will be better organized for the next presidential election; and the market for "new federalism" will be depressed. (Not that some such decentralization of functions isn't long overdue.)
Beyond the three facts there lies an intriguing mystery.
The mystery is what happened to the new Republicanism in the Old South. Except for Virginia, whose political habits remain as eccentric as ever (V.O. Key said Virginia elections "move furniture in the museum"), the GOP's southern strategy is at a standstill.
Significance: the reliable Republican base, almost the only one, is in the West. Also, the Democrats in 1984 will have to take careful account of the South, which has anchored their every successful presidential bid in this century. Politically, the South has risen once again.
If you believe in numbers, the 1982 election can be read, of course, as a measured but sour response to the president's economic policy. If you believe in what voters tell exit pollsters, the voters talk more hopefully than they vote about Reaganomics. Which to believe? I believe the votes, not the polite responses to exit polls.
But whatever the votes mean, 1982 continues a recent pattern of superficial volatility in American politics. "Perceptions" -- it's of course a pollster's word -- change convulsively at least every two years. But the convulsive shift of perceptions has little lasting effect on the country's enduring problems.
Perhaps that is the price of living-room elections, conceived in electronics and dedicated to the proposition that all voters are created manipulable. When elections are about "perceptions," you can be sure they will seldom address real problems with real policies.