Almost as if it were being choreographed by a ballet-master, the United States is being positioned for a classic left-right political battle in 1984.
Much of the credit--or blame--goes to President Reagan, whose economic policies have polarized the electorate on sharply drawn class lines and have politicized previously passive constituencies into praise or protest of his actions.
But the movement has spread well beyond the White House and Washington, and is being taken up and amplified at the community level by new organizations that flourish in the sharply etched ideological fissures of this time.
In the space of a few hours last week, I found myself interviewing two men who personify the emerging pattern: Lewis E. Lehrman of Citizens for America and Robert M. Brandon of the Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition. Lew Lehrman and Bob Brandon agree on almost nothing except that the time is right to mobilize public opinion on bedrock economic issues and thereby gain what both these young men see as a decisive political advantage in a new era of governmental policy.
Brandon and his allies in the coalition of labor, senior citizen and community organizations are building a reputation for effective door-to-door canvassing and grass-roots lobbying against Reagan administration efforts to decontrol the price of natural gas for homes and industry. This weekend they will hold rallies and go canvassing in some 60 cities in 35 states, in a show of muscle aimed at killing off the decontrol movement and attempting to pass legislation to freeze or rollback gas prices.
Lehrman was in Washington to announce that he is well on his way toward fleshing out the organizational structure and assuring the $1.5 million budget for his grass-roots conservative lobby, launched during the past summer with the encouragement of President Reagan. With the avowed aim of selling the economic and national security policies of the Reagan administration through local forums and news channels, the Lehrman group will have its network of letter-writing, debate- seeking activists ready in every congressional district within the next few weeks.
Both Lehrman and Brandon have long-term aims that go far beyond the immediate issues. Brandon, who tried earlier to build a grass-roots populist coalition around the issue of tax reform, believes that the public protest against rising energy costs has finally given him a tool to challenge the power of the oil and gas companies and--more broadly --corporate influence in Washington.
Lehrman, who came close to winning the governorship of New York last year and is eager to try again in 1986, says the president urged him to launch a "conservative reform" movement that would carry on beyond Reagan's own time in office.
What is striking about the conversations of the two ideologically opposed organizers--both of whom burn with a missionary kind of zeal--is their shared belief that the public is ready to join in the kind of no-holds-barred struggle for which they both yearn.
Brandon's eyes gleam with pleasure when he tells how 1,500 senior citizens in Milwaukee badgered Republican Sen. Robert Kasten into pledging his opposition to decontrol.
And Lehrman's eyes have the same gleam when he says that the business and professional people he is recruiting will form what he calls "a grass-roots community lobby in every congressional district that will hold the congressman accountable on the issues that will decide this country's future."
What all this suggests to me is that we are emerging from the era of apathy that enveloped our politics from the Vietnam war period until well after Watergate. Instead, we are entering a period where people see large personal stakes in government policies-- whether they be the price of energy or the level of taxes--and increasingly believe that they can best protect their interests by raising their voices and casting their votes.
Some of this reflects the hard economic times of severe inflation and high unemployment through which we have come. Some of it is a natural reaction to all the stories about special-interest influence in Washington. And some of it surely reflects the wisdom both supporters and critics of President Reagan have gained from seeing in the last three years that an election really can change the direction of government policy.
Some will fret about the polarization of policy reflected by the emergence of groups like Brandon's and Lehrman's. But I'll take a good political fight over apathy and cynicism any day.