One of the delights of being Ronald Reagan must be the recurrent spectacle of Democrats barking up very strange trees -- and all because of him.
For instance? The Democratic state chairmen met the other day at Florida's Walt Disney World to plan for the 1986 off-year elections. There the national committee's wise men, armed with a massive survey of U.S. public opinion, concluded that the Democrats should not make an issue of Ronald Reagan or his policies next year. As one newspaper report put it, "Most voters are not interested in making 1986 a 'referendum' on President Reagan." A Democratic Party official remarked: "They've put him in the history books and they're moving on into the future."
This may be what the survey suggests; ask silly questions and you get silly answers. But the advice flies in the face of common sense. What would a Reaganless 1986 campaign look like? Not "Hamlet" without the prince, perhaps, but surely "Hamlet" without the ghost of Hamlet's father: a drama without a motive.
Ronald Reagan, like his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt, entered the stage after a long period of intellectual dominance by the other party and altered the terms of the American political debate. He has presided over our largest (and in absolute terms, costliest) peacetime arms buildup, and correspondingly checked the growth of social welfare and education programs. His tax bills have drastically shifted the incidence of taxation, doubled the national debt and ushered the nation into net borrower status for the first time since World War I.
Whatever you think of the results, Reagan and his policies are not an optional issue -- not, at least, for a party that pretends to be in touch with social an historical reality. The idea of tiptoeing around six years of revolutionary politics as if nothing had changed is bizarre.
Yet it would seem that Reagan has so buffaloed the Democrats politically that the counsel of avoidance is welcomed, driftwood for the shipwrecked. Even Sen. Edward Kennedy, who recently spoke of the need for a party to sail into the wind, has furled his mainsail and subsided into a weary pragmatism. He is ostentatiously supporting the Gramm- Rudman balanced-budget bill and otherwise emitting smoke signals of "moderation." Meanwhile, other Democrats have inspected and discarded such leaden balloons as "industrial policy," "domestic content," Atari Democracy, etc., to massive public indifference.
What is wrong? So far as one can see, especially in the weird news from Walt Disney World, the troubles of the Democrats begin with a misreading of the Reagan phenomenon. The verdict, certainly, is still very much out on his high-risk policies, but such as they are, those policies were not born of public- opinion surveys or the measurement of transient whims.
Smart opinion has all along dismissed Reagan as a politician who gambled recklessly with the known tolerances of the U.S. political consensus. This was the response to his proposal of 1976 to shift $90 billion (then a lot of budget money) in programs and resources from Washington to the states. It was the response to his subsequent embrace of radical tax-cutting. It is the response today to his visionary plans for a space- based defense against ballistic missiles.
As each of these odd ideological bumblebees came to light, wise men examined the ratio of wingspread to body weight and declared them unable to fly -- only to see them buzz off to what passes these days as political success.
One impression, by no means new, would seem to be that conviction, however risky or defiant of conventional opinion, still counts. Maybe not right away but in the long run. All the polling and whim-obsession notwithstanding, genuine political movements originate in authentic responses to real phenomena. Ronald Reagan is not primarily a creator of political illusions; he reacts with candor to what he sees around him.
Will the Democrats regain their lost ground by making an unmentionable of R----d R----n? It seems unlikely. Maybe they ought to try something radical -- like fire the opinion samplers and say what they think.