THE books are about to close on the party competition of the 1980s, the Reagan era. This decade has seen extraordinary changes in the parties' standing - more, in fact, than in any other period since the Great Depression. The Democrats were the big winners in the '30s, capturing the minds and hearts of a new political generation. But it is the Republicans who have won handily the battle of the '80s. To be sure, the present outcome is from one perspective less decisive than the earlier one. The GOP has dominated the presidency, and it has for the most part prevailed on national policy. Its latter success has been evident in the debate over capital gains. Here the Democrats have struggled to establish their position even on an issue - a tax cut going disproportionately to the rich and near-rich - that in the New Deal era would have looked to them much like a hanging curve ball looked to Henry Aaron.
Yet in elections where national issues have not held sway, the Democrats have continued to win more than their share. The striking political tension contained in these ``split-level'' results sets the present party system apart from its predecessors.
Looking, however, at how Americans assess the two parties, we see Republican gains over this decade as impressive as the Democratic gains of the '30s. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was an unpopular Democratic president and his party's stock had fallen sharply from its New Deal and Great Society heights. Still, the Republicans were struggling to establish themselves. This is evident from data on party identification - where the GOP trailed by margins of 20 percentage points.
At the end of the 1980s, though, the GOP has pulled even in party identification and ahead on other ratings. Measuring party preference isn't something akin to lowering a thermometer into a pool of water; for a number of reasons the readings just aren't that precise. All major national polls, however, show impressive movement over the decade: The net shift to the Republicans in identification has been in the 15 to 20 percentage-point range in surveys taken by Gallup, CBS News, and the New York Times, the National Opinion Research Center, and the Roper Organization. The readings fluctuate, but a clear, gradually intensifying swing is evident.
Studies of the Democrats' lasting gains of the New Deal years show they were achieved less by converting people who had been in the electorate prior to the depression than by attracting a disproportionate share of new voters. Even today the Democrats' best age groups are those who came of age politically in the 1930s. This suggests, of course, that the scope of the GOP's advance in the Reagan-Bush years is best gauged by the response of this era's new generation.
Recent work by political scientists Helmut Norpoth and Michael Kagay provides dramatic evidence of Republican success in attracting the young. Norpoth and Kagay combined large numbers of CBS News/New York Times polls each year to get larger, more reliable samples. They found that in 1980, 54 percent of those 18 to 29 years old identified as Democrats, 33 percent as Republicans - a net Democratic advantage of 21 points. By the first quarter of 1989, however - the latest period Norpoth and Kagay covered - 52 percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds were Republicans, 38 percent Democrats, a GOP margin of 14 points. The year-to-year data make clear that this huge generational transformation resulted from gradually accumulating experience, rather than being a sudden response to one set of events.
Other measures of partisan standing show the Republicans having progressed even further. Throughout the New Deal years the Democrats gained much from being seen as the ``party of prosperity.'' But in a July 1989 poll taken by Gallup, 51 percent described the Republicans as the party likely to do ``a better job of keeping the country prosperous,'' while only 30 percent picked the Democrats. Among the young, the GOP's margin was still larger: 63 percent of those 18 to 29 saw it as best on the economy, compared to 23 percent picking the Democrats. In contrast, among people 50 years and older, the Republican edge was just 43 percent to 32 percent.
What's more, Norpoth and Kagay point out, nothing like the current swing occurred among young voters in earlier periods when Republicans seemed to be making a run. The GOP improved its position among those who came of age politically in the Eisenhower years, for example, but not nearly so much as it has among new voters of the '80s.
The 1930s and the 1980s stand out in 20th-century United States experience as periods of uniquely intense generational shifts.
What's the essential political message here? Not, surely, that Republican gains are certain in the next decade, or that the party's victory in future elections is ordained. But the books are being closed on the '80s, with the GOP having strengthened its underlying base and built it to a level not seen since the first quarter of this century.