The New Right folks were in town last week, proclaiming the arrival of what William A. Rusher, publisher of The National Review, called "the golden age of American conservatism."
While the delegates to the Conservative Political Action Conference were saluting President Reagan and their favorites from the administration and Congress, Democratic members of the House were holding a "retreat" at a resort in West Virginia. The Democrats heard everyone from Lee Iacocca to Reagan's former communications director, David Gergen. And a "motivational psychologist" for Elizabeth Arden cosmetics diagnosed their party's ailments.
If you wanted a metaphor for the current condition of the two parties, these simultaneous gatherings certainly provided it: buoyant Reublicans planning their future and worried Democrats wondering if they have one.
That made it all the more surprising that the weekend reading included two publications in which a variety of political scientists and polling analysts searched in vain in the results of the 1984 elections for evidence of a party realignment.
It's not for want of trying. In their business, the person who comes up with proof of a political realignment will have achieved something comparable to the discovery of a quark or one of those other things the natural scientists find so exciting.
I mean, there hasn't been a realignment since Roosevelt established the New Deal coalition at the center of the solar system of politics, so it's going to be a big deal when another one is spotted. In "PS," a quarterly published by the American Political Science Association, Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford says that except for southern whites, "who have been engaged in a process of realignment since 1948 . . . there is as yet no evidence of a decisive partisan realignment." More people call themselves Republicans than in the past, but voters of all stripes are wearing their party loyalties lightly, responding to candidate appeals and the issues of the moment. "There clearly is still no majority party," Lipset says.
In the same publication, David W. Brady and Patricia A. Hurley of Rice University examine not just the presidential polls, but voting studies of Congress, and find even more reason for skepticism. "We believe that neither 1980 nor 1984 was a realigning election," they say.
As for predictions of a coming Republican ascendancy, they note that "The Republican Party is split into two groups: traditional economic conservatives and members of the 'New Right.' These two groups are in disagreement on a number of issues. Ronald Reagan, by sheer force of personality, has been able to hold them together. Now that he is a lame duck, the Republican Party may well become less cohesive organizationally and in government."
In "The Elections of 1984," a new book edited by Michael Nelson of Vanderbilt University for Congressional Quarterly, there are two more swings at the realignment question.
In one, Theodore J. Lowi of Cornell University says categorically that "the Reagan victory of 1984 was a personal victory -- broad, nationwide but shallow." He predicts that "Reagan will end his second term having failed to leave the legacy he seeks -- a conservative majority party and a national government built on conservative lines. . . . After a brief honeymoon period in 1985, President Reagan's approval ratings are highly likely to begin the familiar downward trend."
Two of Lowi's colleagues at Cornell, Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, express the viewpoint closest to my own. They are impressed by the seriousness of the Democrats' coalition problems and by the gathering momentum of the GOP advance. But they properly suggest that "the durability of the Reagan alignment depends less upon the votes cast in 1984 than upon the president's success during his second term in institutionalizing his electoral coalition."
Like Lowi, they shrewdly point out that several Reagan policies -- ranging from the indexation of tax rates to proposed tuition tax credits and "Star Wars" -- could persuade important middle-class, ethnic or business constituencies that they have a long- term stake in Republicans' success.
"If through these and similar programs, Reagan is able to follow Roosevelt's example, then the elections of 1980 and 1984, like those of 1932 and 1936, may come to be seen as a critical turning point in American political history," they say.
But it hasn't happened yet.