November's Elections Reminiscent of 1982 Elections

Just two years ago, Democrats were on their way to the biggest congressional majorities in many years. Now they're struggling to stay in power. And that prompts comparisons to another president who started with a lousy economy. President Reagan's party faced tough midterm elections as unemployment topped 10 percent in 1982.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The unemployment rate is one of the big reasons that Democrats expect to be hammered in this fall's elections. Just two years ago, they were on their way to the biggest congressional majorities in many years. Now they're struggling just to stay in power. And that prompts comparisons to another American president who started with a lousy economy: President Ronald Reagan. His party faced a tough midterm election as unemployment topped 10 percent in 1982.

So let's talk about this NPR's Cokie Roberts who covered that 1982 election, and joins us most Mondays.

Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve, Happy Labor Day.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Thank you very much. So when Democrats look at the similarities between this year and '82, do they see that as good news or bad news?

ROBERTS: Well, any comparison other than 1994 they see as good news, because, of course, that was a terrible year for them. Two years into a new presidents term and it gives them the willies, 'cause thats when Republicans won 54 seats and control of the House for the first time in decades.

Look, there've been a lot of comparisons made between this year and that. As I say, Democrats had both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue; there was a health care bill that had been terribly unpopular - those kinds of things.

But on those other measurements - that unemployment rate that you mentioned, presidential approval rating, consumer confidence all of those are metrics that can often be combined to predict how an election will go, and those do look a lot more like 1982. And that year there was a 90 percent incumbent re-election rate, so some Democrats are thinking maybe things won't be that bad after all.

INSKEEP: Although, in 1982, President Reagan's party, the Republican Party, lost an awful lot of seats in the House and that was seen as a referendum on his side.

ROBERTS: Well, I think off-year elections are a referendum on the presidency. I think they're our equivalent to a parliamentary system's vote of confidence or no confidence in the prime minister. And we've seen that in 1994 and in 2006 when one party occupied the White House and the Capitol. The voters essentially reign in that party and say not so fast; this isnt what we had in mind.

And I remember in 1982, being at a Rotary meeting in Belzoni, Mississippi and having - it was all men, of course - the men come up and say - they were, like, farm equipment salesmen and car salesmen. And they said, you know, we couldn't spend that much money on defense as Reagan had done; we couldnt spend that much money on our business that fast and get something done. They were aware of what was happening in Washington and they weren't happy about it.

And Republicans did lose 26 seats, and it meant they lost what was a working majority in the House, when combined with conservative Democrats. That's the way President Reagan had gotten his tax and budget bills through was having southern Democrats and Republicans in the House form a working majority, along with some very loyal Republicans in the Senate who had been elected on his coattails.

And after the '92 election, he had to moderate his policies a lot.

INSKEEP: After the '82 election. I suppose, though, if you're a Democrat one reason you would like this comparison is that Republicans managed to contain their losses. They kept control of the Senate at that time, and of course, President Reagan went on to a huge reelection a couple of years later.

ROBERTS: Well, if you're a Democrat in the White House, you particularly like that story. On Capitol Hill it doesn't do quite the same thing...

INSKEEP: Maybe not so much, yeah.

ROBERTS: ...for them, right. And they are quite spooked by a Gallup poll showing that Republicans have a 10-point lead when voters are asked whats called the generic question: which party they want to control the Congress. And that number is significant, but its not as important as the individual race by race, which really don't know until October.

But right now, there are some polls out that have caused Congress watchers to move 10 more House Democrats into the toss-up column. And, you know, that does show really bad signs for them. Now, getting a bad poll this early out sometimes makes an incumbent, particularly an incumbent with money, pay attention. But look, yes, it's a tough, tough year for Democrats. They could easily lose the House; they could maybe losethe Senate, regardless of what happened in any other off-year election.

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds here, Cokie, President Obama himself has expressed some admiration for President Reagan in the past, saying I didn't necessarily agree with his policies but I agreed with his leadership style. Is Obama trying to draw from that leadership style in this tough moment?

ROBERTS: Well, I think he hasn't so far. Part of what President Reagan's style was, was a tremendous optimism and sunnyness. But I think that President Obama is sort of rethinking that and will be out on the road this week talking about the economy and ways to fix it. But I think probably, talking a little about the can-do spirit of America and American workers, and maybe that is a page from Reagan's book.

INSKEEP: OK. All right. Thanks very much, as always. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts.

You hear her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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