The post-election analysis, stock- taking and punditry have mostly been efforts to interpret last Tuesday's message to the president and his party. That's fair enough, considering that President Reagan sought -- and in a number of places, succeeded -- to make the election a referendum on his presidency.
But somewhere among the electoral entrails, there is also a message for the Democrats. The message: offer us an alternative.
So far, the Democrats have been busy congratulating themselves on their "win" -- a gain of two dozen seats in the House and a draw in the Senate, though the Republicans had only half as many seats at risk.
Not bad, they are saying, pointing out that the average off-year gain for the party out of power is about a dozen House seats. I don't put any more stock in that than I do in the White House claim that the Republicans won because they lost the fewest seats of any party in power in an off-year election during which unemployment was above 10 percent.
If the Democrats had proposed any sort of alternative to Reaganomics, rather than mere opposition, their modest and unsurprising victory might have been a rout.
The polls -- including the exit polls on Election Day -- indicate that the American voters like President Reagan but not his economic program. If you buy that, and buy also the notion that Reagan managed to make the election something of a referendum on his presidency, then it seems fair to ask why the Democrats didn't do better. It isn't as though Reagan himself were on the ballot, in which case his supposed personal popularity might have been a factor.
To the extent that the Republicans who were on the ballot were seen as prospective supporters of the president's policies and programs, it must be said that Reagan didn't fare all that badly.
Which is precisely what his top aides are saying. The day after the election, one senior White House official was observing that "the other side missed a pretty good opportunity . . . the president came out very well."
Another remarked that there was little in the election results to suggest that the voters want a major change of direction.
If that is so, then it is because the Democrats failed to propose a new direction--for the simple reason that they have yet to devise one. They know better than to propose a return to the Great Society programs, characterized by Reagan as "tax and tax and spend and spend." The American consensus appears to be that the Great Society approach had reached the limits of its effectiveness and, besides, its resuscitation would cost more than we can afford. But if the Democrats feared to revive their old approach, they lacked the vision to come up with a new one. Listen to their proposals, and what you hear sounds like Reaganomics with a heart.
Even in the face of record unemployment, the Democrats could not agree on an attractive jobs policy. Newsweek magazine, in its Oct. 18 special issue ("How to Get America Back to Work"), put together a more cogent, more pragmatic and more "Democratic" employment package than the Democrats themselves could manage.
Even so, the Republicans lost 26 seats in the House -- a message they are certain to read with some care. The message for Democrats, which I am not certain they have yet recognized, is that opposition isn't enough.