Democrats did not need to hear President Reagan's State of the Union address last night to deliver their answer to it. At 11:15 a.m. yesterday, more than eight hours before the President was scheduled to deliver the annual speech to Congress, a group of prominent Democrats strode out of the Dirksen Senate Office Building here and gave waiting reporters a preview of their response to Mr. Reagan's message.
``We Democrats are going to say that America is entering the post-Reagan era,'' said Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine.
Added Paul G. Kirk Jr., chairman of the Democratic National Committee: ``The values you will see portrayed in tonight's Democratic view of the State of the Union will guide our party in this year of reckoning for the Republicans.''
Despite the verbal saber rattling, however, the message that seemed to be emanating from Democratic ranks on the eve of the President's address was that they are entering the 1986 political year with a good deal of trepidation. While next fall's election holds the possibility of Democratic gains in the House and Senate, it is also the year of the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing act. A mighty contest is shaping up between Congress and White House over how to meet deficit-reduction targets mandated by Gramm-Rudman, and Democratic ranks are fractured over how to best deal with the problem.
The Democrats have not taken as much comfort as might be expected in recent polls indicating that, despite the near-historic level of public approval the President enjoys, there has been marked shift of voter registration favoring the Republicans. Some suspect their party has benefited from a perceived drift by the Republican Party to the right, away from the political mainstream, more than it has from any attractive alternatives the Democrats have to offer. Indeed, some Democrats say their party is heading for the fall elections and the waning years of the Reagan era with little to offer Americans in the way of a coherent vision for the future.
The President's State of the Union address, scheduled to be delivered after this paper went to press, was expected to not focus so much on the country's mounting deficit problem, or the congressional budget battle looming ahead. Instead, the President was expected to discuss the notion of the ``family budget,'' as opposed to a national budget and call for an overhaul of the nation's welfare system. It was also widely anticipated that Mr. Reagan would strike a familiar refrain that the US is boldly moving into a bright future, thanks to the economic and social policies of his administration.
Democrats at Tuesday's press conference promised to dissect those assertions in their party's response to the address, to have been broadcast immediately after the President's speech. Former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb promised to debunk the President's claim of a strong America, ``not with numbers and statistics, but with real stories and real people; what's happening to real people represents the real state of the Union.''
Senator Mitchell pledged, ``We will address ourselves to family values'' in the Democratic response, and said that the ``best social-service program'' was the family. He cited figures showing that 14 million Americans live below the poverty line, an increase of 35 percent over the past five years.
In a similar vein, Rep. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Budget Committee, lambasted the record of the administration in creating jobs, claiming that 9 million new jobs had been created in the past five years of the Reagan administration, while 13 million had been created in the five years before that.
Mr. Gray said Democrats would lambaste an ``expensive fiscal policy based on spend, spend, spend, borrow, borrow, borrow.''