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Republican disappointment - but Reagan didn't lose

WHETHER the final historic verdict on the Reykjavik summit is a Reagan triumph, nontriumph, or public relations post-Reykjavik triumph may be argued for a long time. What is certain is this: President Reagan certainly shook things up. Yet the President didn't follow suit last week and - to his own satisfaction - shake things up in the elections.

He did help the Republicans - immensely. Indeed, the outcome looks pretty good for the GOP when placed against the record of the past: In the previous sixth-year election since World War II, during the Eisenhower presidency in 1958, the Republican party lost six governorships, seven Senate seats, and 48 House seats.

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The election indirectly provided confirmation that voters approved of Mr. Reagan's performance at the Iceland summit. Exit polls showed his popularity to be exceedingly high.

Yet while many voters find it easy to ``like'' Reagan and his handling of the presidency, they voted for a Democrat. Obviously he wasn't able to get people to buy his advice: ``A vote for [the GOP candidate] is a vote for me.''

Reagan did have a decided pro-Republican impact on the elections which the GOP loss of the Senate has tended to overshadow. Some of the ``wisdom'' emanating from TV the night of the election created the impression that whenever a hotly contested Senate seat went to the Democrats, Reagan's heavy involvement in that race ``hadn't done any good,'' as one analyst put it. A more accurate assessment would have been that Reagan's visits, speeches, and exhortations probably helped the GOP candidate - but not quite enough.

Some GOP candidates simply couldn't have been rescued by the most expert of political swimmers. The Nevada senatorial candidate was one of them.

Can anyone possibly attribute Jim Santini's going down to Reagan's effort to save him? Reagan went into Nevada twice on the request of his old friend Paul Laxalt.

The fact is that Reagan's campaigning did much to stem, at least to some extent, the tide rolling toward the Democrats. But the economy and the plight of many Americans hurt by what is, for them, a recession swelled the Democratic vote.

One poll on TV cited a large number of voters who said they liked Reagan but were voting Democratic. Another poll showed about half of these pro-Reagan voters casting ballots for Democrats.

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The conclusion analysts drew from this was that Reagan wasn't able to translate his popularity into help for others.

Wrong again! Such polls show that Reagan is able to keep voters on the Republican side because of their approval of him.

In fact, reporters on the recent campaign trail were sniffing a public perception in favor of the President in the wake of Reykjavik. There was little evidence the summit had set off a big glow of optimism among US citizens for total disarmament. But the comments of voters implied that a new feeling was surfacing: We do not necessarily have to live forever with possible nuclear disaster only moments away.

As the result of the Reagan-Gorbachev talks - unsuccessful as they were - the American people are talking about the possibility, the real possibility, of a different kind of world, a safer world, a world where there won't be just a cap on missile buildups or a slight mutual reduction in missiles but one in which the mutual missile threat will be tremendously reduced, if not, in time, done away with.

Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev may have inspired an impossible hope. And they may have done it without intending to go that far - or any distance at all. But in so doing this, they destroyed a basic assumption that has so long prevailed in most people's thinking: Mutual deterrence through mutual offensive capacity is the only attainable road to the maintenance of peace.

So it was that Reagan moved from summitry to all-out political campaigning.

He knew the possible cost to himself: A loss of the Senate might be charged to his own ineffectiveness as a campaigner - and this, of itself, might erode his ability to govern.

He also knew what it would mean to him in terms of moving forward with initiatives during his final two years.

So he jumped in and made a valiant effort. He didn't really lose - he simply didn't do as well as he would have liked.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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