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'82 vote -- through GOP, Democratic lenses

Guy Vander Jagt, a GOP congressman from Michigan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, faced reporters the morning after the election.

At first, he looked a little sheepish. He had promised to fulfill this engagement no matter how the election came out. He had predicted a net GOP gain in the House. With the loss of 26 House seats Mr. Vander Jagt was going to have to ''eat crow.'' He said, as he sat down: ''I had hoped my car might break down.''

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But Representative Vander Jagt, after quickly conceding his misjudgment, soon was his usual ebullient self - and on the offensive. He, like White House chief of staff James Baker III, said President Reagan would still be able to pull together a winning House coalition, at least on occasion.

The President also insisted that he felt very good about the results, particularly in the Senate.

Thus, top Republican politicians and their strategists were saying that since the election hadn't gone as badly as it might have, it was a triumph for the President and his party. The Republicans clearly were staring down defeat - and getting away with it.

The next morning, Vander Jagt's counterpart, US Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the head of the Democratic Congressional Committee, met with this same group of reporters.

Representative Coelho's job should have been easy. He could talk about all the new Democrats in the House. And he did. He said it was ''nonsense'' that they could be lured to the President's side. ''Three-fourths of them,'' he said, ''are going to vote with the Democrats. I figure we can now count on 52 more votes.''

Coelho could also cite impressive Democratic gains in the governor's races and among the state legislatures. And he did. ''And,'' he said, ''with only 43, 000 more votes, we could have picked up five more Senate seats.''

But, as one reporter pointed out, Coelho was spending much of his time trying to explain why the Democrats had, indeed, been the winners. Coelho, on at least three occasions, said, ''Now, let's put things in perspective. . . .'' By this, he said, he meant that the Democratic gains on Tuesday must be measured against the expectations of a year ago.

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''At that time,'' he said, ''the Republicans were talking about actually taking over control of the House in 1982.'' But, he added, an impressive Democratic campaign effort - together with deep unemployment - had turned things around.

''We were on the defensive in 1980,'' said Coelho, ''but by early fall of this year we had taken the offensive. And we have been very successful.''

But why, reporters asked, hadn't Democrats scored bigger victories in Tuesday's election, given high unemployment? Vander Jagt had pointed out that in 1958, the last time unemployment was more than 7 percent in a midterm election, Republicans under President Eisenhower had lost nearly 50 seats.

At this point Coelho once more brought up the let's-keep-things-in-perspective theme. He asserted that today the media should stress how far the Democrats have come since 1980. He said it was unfair that the Democratic victory was being dimmed by a media interpretation that seemed to buy a Reagan-Baker-Vander Jagt line.

Thus, Coelho found himself in the position of having to try to rejigger the interpretation of an election that the Democrats won. In doing so, he looked as though he were on the defensive.

He was predicting that the Democrats now had set the stage for taking over all of Congress as well as the presidency in 1984. And he was presenting a scenario where the President would now have to bend to the wishes of Democratic leadership in the House if he hoped to avoid a stalemate.

But at the same time, Coelho was conceding that the President remained politically formidable - and that he might very well move toward accommodation with the Democrats on a series of issues and then go on to take credit for the compromise legislation the Democrats had been instrumental in shaping.

''The President,'' said Coelho, ''has a tremendous ability to take credit for everything good.''

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