Farm crisis unifies Democrats. But Reagan's hold on voters still frustrates them
Pounded at the polls by President Reagan, Democrats on Capitol Hill have finally found a rallying point in the nation's farm crisis. Not since the opposition party campaigned in 1982 to save the social security system from what it portrayed as a Reagan threat have Democrats found such a unifying subject. ``This issue could not have come out at a better time to bring Democrats together,'' said Sen. J. James Exon (D) of Nebraska, one of the organizers of a filibuster that helped produce a Senate farm-credit aid bill, over strenuous White House objections, with votes from eight Republicans.
Democrats are already preparing their protests against the presidential veto that is expected when the legislation reaches the Oval Office this week.
Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia charged that a veto could only be interpreted as total disregard for the farmers' plight. Senator Byrd, who with Senator Exon met Monday at a breakfast with reporters, said he would consider attaching similar farm aid provisions to two other bills.
The two Democrats pointed to signs of renewed unity and vigor in their party.
One key to the optimism is the Democrats' gain of two Senate seats in the last election. The current 47-to-53 margin requires a switch of only two or three GOP votes for a Democratic victory. Byrd pointed out that this narrow margin allowed his side to pull out the farm aid vote (55 to 45), even if it would not provide the two-thirds vote for overriding a veto.
Moreover, the minority leader has help from the political pressure building on Republicans, 22 of whom are up for reelection next year. About half of those members come from agricultural states.
Minority leader Byrd, who has kept a low public profile for nearly four years, fought off a surprise challenge to his leadership in the new Congress and has increased his visibility. The self-proclaimed ``behind the scenes'' lawmaker has reinstituted weekly press conferences he held as majority leader.
But the Democratic Party remains frustrated and befuddled about how to cope with Reagan, as Byrd and Exon made clear in their session with reporters. While 80 percent of Americans ``feel that the American farmer does need help,'' Byrd observed, the farmers interviewed on television do not criticize Mr. Reagan.
Exon, whose own corn-growing state overwhelmingly voted for Reagan, said the administration has ``taken the Farm Belt for granted.'' He warned of a major political upheaval in the Midwest.
Signs of such a change are scant. ``I think there are some farmers who are beginning to have second thoughts,'' says Bob Dennan, lobbyist for the National Farmers Union, a Midwest-based organization of 300,000 farm families.
But some Midwest state legislators, who came to Washington last week to lobby for emergency aid, reported that their constituents still back Mr. Reagan.
``That's the Reagan character,'' says Joe Fields, spokesman for the conservative American Farm Bureau Federation, which numbers 3.3 million members. ``He does things to make a lot of people mad, and yet they vote for him.''
``I think the bulk of farmers elected Reagan to balance the budget,'' Mr. Fields says. ``While this particular bailout program [passed by Congress] might help a few farmers, by and large American farmers don't want'' more federal spending. While up to one-third of the farmers are in trouble, he adds, two-thirds are not.
Byrd, pointing to the Reagan success record, repeated a frequent Democratic lament about the telegenic President: ``We can't compete with him.''
Neither do the Democrats appear to have developed a distinct theme to contrast with Reagan's programs. ``Our guidelines are fairness, equitability, economic growth, a strong defense, and real budget reductions and competitiveness,'' Byrd said, adding that such ideas, if pressed, could win Senate seats in 1986. But he could offer only one example of an issue, besides farm aid, that will unite his party: Democrats will fight hard for federal money for education, he said.