AT first blush, the case for continuing Republican control of the Senate in this November's elections can hardly profit from the serious clouds drifting across the economic horizon: The record federal budget deficits that show little sign of easing; the mammoth and still growing trade deficits; the depression in the Farm Belt; the ongoing collapse in the value of the dollar; and the decline of American factories as manufacturing moves to other continents. In the past, circumstances and failures like these have usually caused serious midterm congressional losses for the party running things in the White House, especially when the party in question has already been in power for six years. That's often enough time for a considerable public disillusionment to set in. Since World War II, moreover, prior GOP administrations have invariably aggravated voter reactions by presiding over recessions in time for the midterm elections.
This year, however, two important new nuances are apparent. First, instead of facing their usual recession in time for the midterms, the GOP has produced what's being called a two-tier or bifurcated economy -- weak-to-depressed in the Farm Belt, the oil patch, mining and timber states, steel country, and elsewhere, but still strong in the coastal financial and service industry centers. So while local economic problems may cost the Republicans Senate and House seats in some of these states, on a larger level the public remains unsure -- are these just local problems or an incipient national predicament? Is the US economic glass half empty or half full? If the electorate starts to reach a new decision in the next few weeks, the pre-Election Day debate could get a lot more interesting.
The second unique nuance of this election is also relevant, though. It's essentially this: Midterm congressional elections are often substantially a referendum on the policies of the national leadership in the White House. But this precedent can't be very easily applied to the Republicans in the Senate. For one thing, the great majority of those running for reelection, especially in the agricultural and extractive industry heartland, have rejected or modified President Reagan's unpopular trade, agricultural, and energy policies in favor of more locally appealing stances. Similar independence has been shown by Republican congressmen running for open Senate seats in Louisiana and Colorado. And most Senate Republicans, especially those up for election this year, have also disavowed the President's blueprint to slash domestic spending while escalating defense outlays.
On the most obvious dimension, it's just political realism. The President may be popular, but many of his economic policies are not, particularly in areas hurt by them. There's a new institutional element at work, too, however, and this is what makes the Senate GOP's position so clearly unique this autumn. Since 1900, it's been true more often than not that the White House and Congress have been controlled by the same party, and when the legislative and executive branches were split, the division usually pitted a House and Senate of one party against a President from the other camp. Partisan control of the House and Senate has been clearly divided only once before during the 20th century -- in 1911-12.
This is what makes the ongoing 1981-86 Washington three-way split among a Republican Senate, a Democratic House, and a Republican President so unprecedented and important. Just as a large number of individual Republican senators up for reelection in 1986 have carved out separate identities from the Republican White House on issues like agriculture, trade, energy, domestic spending, and defense policy, the Senate itself has also emerged as something of an ideological brokerage institution, especially in 1985-86 under the leadership of Senate majority leader Robert Dole. By helping frame policy and program compromises between the Reagan White House on the right and the liberal Democratic House of Representatives more to the left, the GOP Senate has become something of a ``third force'' in the nation's capital. Thus, to an unprecedented extent, GOP senators and major Senate candidates this year should be able to minimize midterm voter responses reflecting resentment over administration policies. The Republican Senate has, in fact, arguably become Washington's most constructive counterforce against some of those directions.
The upshot? That a sophisticated argument for continuing a Republican Senate may rest less on preventing President Reagan from becoming a lame duck than on maintaining the one power center that's displayed a talent for keeping Washington's tricky partisan and institutional balance of power in something resembling working shape.
Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report.