Is there a Party of the opposition anymore? Each new year makes this question increasingly insistent. During the first two weeks of January the Reagan regime had a virtual media field day to itself, while leading Democrats were elsewhere or occupied with tearing into Mondale.
Two cases are illustrative. Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, with exaggerated White House fanfare, called a news conference to condemn all the supposedly useless government publications that have been disbanded in order to save the taxpayers money. With a sense of circus, Meese brought several plastic garbage bags full of the condemned brochures to keep the photographers busy. That evening and the next day there was wide coverage of the Meese message.
No Democrats — whether Presidential candidates, members of Congress or spokespersons for the Democratic National Committee responded. As a consequence, what Meese did not talk about was not revealed.
Specifically no attention was drawn to the popular health and safety booklets — from those on nutrition guidelines to automobile safety by make and model — which Meese and his associates stopped printing in deference to the agribusiness and auto companies. More generally, the Democrats did not rebut the absurdity of Reagan’s agencies collecting information yearly and then telling citizens they are saving their tax dollars by not giving this information to them in usable form. Still more broadly, the Meese dramatics could have given the Democrats a major opportunity to roast the Reaganites for their widespread bureaucratic blackouts and their cutting off statistical data and other information lifelines to the American people who usually do not relish a government that keeps them in the dark.
A few days post Meese, J. Peter Grace and his Reagan-anointed private panels of corporate executives issue their final report on reducing the costs of government. There were some rehashes of worthy proposals made by earlier studies. But the Presidential panel went way beyond the legal mandate of its executive order by urging drastic policy changes in areas as diverse as taxing social security benefits, weakening atomic power plant regulation, diluting meat and poultry inspection and deferring water pollution controls. This corporate “search and destroy” mission was conducted by businessmen with more than civic interests at stake. The report on the Environmental Protection Agency was largely written by the major chemical companies, and it shows. The Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force embraced representatives of the energy companies. Its recommendations were predictably inattentive to consumer rights. Food company officials, running the Agriculture and federal feeding task forces, displayed the anemic empathy of those with overfilled stomachs.
The Grace panels also did not resist the temptation to reflect their crass self-interest at the expense of workers, the elderly, the poor, consumers and even veterans. Huge areas of waste subsidy and corruption benefiting big business were ignored or, at most, tepidly treated. The principle of the wealthy and powerful sacrificing more than Americans of modest means was turned completely upside down by Mr. Grace. In addition, America’s commonwealth — those millions of acres of federal rangelands out west and the public airwaves, for example — became the subject for recommended transfer to private ownership or greater corporate control.
All in all, the Grace news conference presented the Democratic Party with a major political opportunity for incisive comment and challenge. The Grace reports, in condemning government waste, could be used to criticize the performance of the Reagan government which is going Into its fourth year of office. What has Mr. Reagan been doing about many of these boondoggles which he came into office blasting?
Finally, nourishing the robust debate in a political campaign, there is the prospect that the Grace policy proposals, released during Ronald Reagan’s first term, will likely become the agenda for Mr. Reagan’s second term. The Republicans could not have given the Democrats more grist for their challenge to Reagan if the party of Jefferson had paid for these studies itself.
So what happened on the evening news and the next day’s newspapers? There was massive coverage for the Grace Commission’s recommendations and not a single commentary by the Opposition Party. The New York Times devoted more than an entire page to Mr. Grace’s product. But it was all silence on the Democratic front.
The Meese and Grace episodes illustrate why this Presidential election is for the Democrats to lose more than it is for Reagan to win.