The pendulum often swings

Posted: Jun 08, 2004 12:00 AM

This column is devoted to reporting and analyzing the results of our InsiderAdvantage national polls. The format requires that I routinely remove myself from partisan politics. But Ronald Reagan's influence transcends the everyday political. I feel compelled to reflect on the impact of his passing.

 Countless people knew Reagan far better than I did, so I won't recount the few times I briefly met or spoke with him. More important to my life was getting to know and work with scores of great people who were prominent parts of the Reagan Revolution's early years. As a young speechwriter working for newly elected U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, R-Ga., in 1981, I was completely taken with the wave of excitement that washed over the new Republican "Reaganites" as they set to work.

 As the years passed, some of Reagan's most coveted political "teammates" became friends and supporters of mine. Jack Kemp, Phil Crane and Thad Cochran all stumped for me when I was the GOP's nominee for lieutenant governor of Georgia. Still later, I was privileged to be a part of the effort to keep the Reagan legacy alive by serving as Newt Gingrich's campaign chair during the 1990s. From Dan Quayle to Bob Dole and many others, there was a circle of great men and women who touched my life in a personal way. Each was a genuine disciple of Ronald Reagan's brand of populist conservatism.

 But in my years as a writer and an interpreter of public opinion and political strategy, I have been forced onto a somewhat lonely island in which I have actually bent over backward to understand the other (Democratic) side of each and every issue, and to call things as I see them. Sometimes, such as in last week's column, in which I noted that polls have recently shown John Kerry to be viewed as the more "likeable" candidate than George Bush, my Republican friends are shocked and even angry. Other surveys and analyses that show Bush in a more positive light arouse suspicions among Democrats that I am twisting the numbers to benefit the GOP. Neither is ever the case.

 So in remembering Reagan -- personally my most beloved president -- let me discuss some present-day numbers that make for interesting comparisons to the golden years of Reagan (even though they weren't golden for everyone).

 A recent InsiderAdvantage poll, conducted with our survey partners at The Marketing Workshop, asked, "Would you favor the Republicans or the Democrats controlling Congress after this year's election?"

 The results:
 Republicans   46 percent
 Democrats   44 percent
 Neither   4 percent
 Don't know    6 percent

 The poll was conducted May 21-22 among 500 likely voters nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 What does this have to do with Ronald Reagan? Plenty. A presidential candidate's popularity can easily make or break his party's battle for control of the House and Senate. Working on the Mack Mattingly campaign against Herman Talmadge in 1980 in Georgia, it was all too apparent to me that native-son President Jimmy Carter would carry the state. Nevertheless, Reagan energized a sprouting Republican voter base in Georgia. That boosted turnout for Mattingly on his way to an upset victory.

 Two years later, President Reagan suffered low approval ratings. I was working with veteran Republicans like Wilma Goldstein, Joe Gaylord and Bob Weed as part of the Republican Congressional Committee's efforts to prepare Reaganite candidates for the 1982 elections. Some won, but overall, we failed to gain the ground we had hoped for. A big reason was that Reagan's personality and politics had yet to catch fire.

 By 1984, Reagan was way up in the polls. But an adjustment to his hugely popular tax cut -- it gutted the real estate market by eliminating many tax incentives -- laid the groundwork for another drop in his popularity. Consequently, many of the senators and members of Congress swept into office with Reagan lost their seats in 1986 -- including my then-boss and still-friend Mattingly.

 And so the pendulum swings. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who brilliantly maneuvered the Republican Party into a position where it was able to take advantage of then-President Clinton's low mid-term approval ratings in 1994. The second wave of the Reagan Revolution, personified by Gingrich, a true Reaganite, was born that November. The "100 days" of implementing his pledged Contract With America remain one of the GOP's greatest post-Reagan accomplishments.

 In 2004, the numbers and the talk suggest the Democrats might have a chance to retake control of the Senate. I find that problematic because so many of the open seats are in GOP-leaning Southern states. But as history reminds us, President Bush's fate in November may help determine the fate of his party in Congress. For Bush, it will truly be a battle to win one for the Gipper.