Slowly, Americans political reflexes are changing. Not so long ago you could predict the next election pretty well by looking at the unemployment figures. If a recession was on, the Democrats would win. If times were good, particularly if things were booming enough to make inflation a threat, the Republicans would do well. Now the rules seem to be different, to judge from the politics of two states at opposite poles of the country geographically, economically and politically: Texas and Michigan.
Texas, of course, is still reeling from the drop in oil prices. Unemployment has been rising in the oil patch, and expectations have been cruelly disappointed. But the political benefit, at least for the moment, seems to be going to the Republicans. At the beginning of this year, Democratic Gov. Mark White seemed a good bet for reelection. In the past four months he has been plummeting in the polls almost as fast as the price of oil, and in the most recent poll he trailed the three Republicans who are competing in next month's primary. This race is far from over: Mr. White has some substantial political assets, but it is clear that his Democrats can't be sure the recession will sweep them to victory.
The same can be said of the Democrats in Michigan. Their economy reached rock bottom in 1982, after the auto business collapsed. Yet Democrat James Blanchard was elected governor by only a small margin, Republicans captured the state senate after two recall election victories in 1983, and Ronald Reagan easily carried the state in 1984. Mr. Blanchard is now a favorite for reelection and gets credit for much of the revival in the state's economy and buoyancy in spirit. (Are Detroiters getting ready to welcome needy migrants from Houston?) But the Republicans have good prospects in legislative races and have pulled almost even with the Democrats in party identification.
Michigan was for a generation one of the strongest liberal Democratic states in the nation. Texas, from the years before the Civil War to the time of Lyndon Johnson, was a solid part of the Solid Democratic South. Now in Texas the voters are getting into the habit of calling in Republicans to revive their economy, and in Michigan voters are giving credit to Republican legislators and policies as well as the Democratic governor for their economic recovery. Have Americans, who concluded from the bread lines of the 1930s that more government is needed to revive a depressed economy, concluded from the gas lines of the 1970s that less government is needed to produce prosperity? The fragmentary evidence emerging from the still-wintry reaches of Michigan and the already warm dusty plains of Texas seems to support that conclusion.