- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

As Republicans work to prevent Democrats from gaining the six seats they need to capture a majority in the Senate, it might be instructive to compare today’s electoral dynamics with those prevailing 20 years ago — the last time the Republican Party defended its Senate majority in a midterm election during the second term of a Republican president.

One month before the 1986 congressional elections, President Reagan’s job-approval rating stood at 67 percent, a level unmatched in post-World War II history for a president in the second year of his second term.

The economic front was especially appealing for Republican candidates. Over a four-year period ending in September 1986, economic growth averaged a breathtaking 5 percent a year. The October 1986 unemployment rate was 33 percent below what it had been four years earlier. Over that same four-year period, the economy generated an increase of more than 10 million private-sector jobs, reflecting a 14 percent increase in private-sector employment. The inflation rate during 1986, measured by the consumer price index, was 1.2 percent. That was the lowest rate of inflation in more than two decades and more than 11 percentage points below the inflation rate Mr. Reagan inherited. Over the first six months of 1986, the spot price of oil had fallen 60 percent, approaching $10 per barrel. In 1986, the price for regular unleaded gasoline averaged 93 cents per gallon, 33 percent lower than the price prevailing in the year Mr. Reagan became president. Inflation-adjusted median household income had increased 9 percent over the previous three years.

The foreign-policy front was relatively calm as well. To be sure, although the Iran-Contra scandal did not break until after the 1986 elections, there was much controversy over U.S. policy in Central America. But, when voters went to the polls that November, U.S. nuclear missiles had been deployed throughout Western Europe for three years, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was on his knees, futilely begging Mr. Reagan to cancel his missile-defense program. President Reagan’s huge military buildup was paying big dividends by 1986. Meanwhile, the Soviet military — thanks to weapons transfers from the CIA to Muslim guerrilla fighters — was suffering huge setbacks in Afghanistan, which the Soviets invaded in 1979.

On the domestic political front, Mr. Reagan celebrated his crowning second-term achievement on the eve of the 1986 elections. On Oct. 22, 1986, the president signed historic tax-reform legislation, which was overwhelmingly passed by bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.

Entering the 1986 elections, Republicans controlled the Senate by a 53-47 margin. Nevertheless, Democrats gained eight Senate seats in 1986, emerging from the midterm elections with a solid 55-45 majority.

Fast forward two decades to today. President Bush’s job-approval rating, according to the latest Gallup/USA Today poll, is 37 percent, 30 points below Mr. Reagan’s in October 1986. During the four-year period ending in June, the economy expanded at an average annual rate of 3.2 percent. That is a respectable rate, but it is nearly 40 percent slower than the four-year rate during the comparable period of the Reagan presidency. Far more worrisome for Republicans is the fact that only 33 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy (59 percent disapprove) despite the economy’s relatively strong growth rate and its low unemployment.

The June unemployment rate is 21 percent below its level four years earlier. Compared to the 10.2 million private-sector jobs created during the four years preceding the 1986 election, 4.4 million private jobs have been created during the last four years, reflecting a 4.1 percent increase. In contrast to a plunging inflation rate in 1986, consumer prices have increased by 4.3 percent over the last 12 months; today’s inflation is more than double the rate three years earlier. The spot price of oil has increased from $27 per barrel four years ago to $77 per barrel recently. The price of gasoline averages $3.05 per gallon, more than twice its level four years ago. In contrast to the strong growth of middle-class incomes preceding the 1986 election, inflation-adjusted median household income has fallen five years in a row, according to the latest Census data.

Meanwhile, on the foreign-policy front, sectarian fighting threatens to plunge Iraq into civil war amid the presence of 127,000 U.S. troops.

Today, Republicans effectively hold a 55-45 Senate majority. To achieve majority status in the Senate, Democrats must gain six seats, two fewer than they captured in the relatively halcyon days of 1986. It is worth noting that seven of the seats that Democrats gained in 1986 came from the 12-member GOP Senate freshman class that accompanied Mr. Reagan to Washington after the 1980 elections. Moreover, Democrats also achieved their 1986 electoral victory by winning six of the seven cliffhanger races for the Senate that year. Forced to relinquish their committee chairmanships, Republicans took little comfort from the fact that a reversal of fewer than 25,000 votes in five states — Alabama, Colorado, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota — would have kept them in power in the Senate.

Even in today’s political climate, gaining six seats would be a major achievement. If Democrats pull it off, they will win the prizes of committee chairmanships and subpoena power, both of which they would undoubtedly wield to make the Bush administration’s final two years a nightmare.

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