The American people are not buying the currently fashionable trashing of the 1980s.
That's the inescapable conclusion of a surprising new poll that's about to be released. In recent months, as the economy finally slipped into recession after its record peacetime expansion, the die-hard supporters of ever-bigger government have been out in force, pushing the fantasy that the past decade was just a dreadful period of wretched, unregulated capitalist excess, in which the only real winners were the rich and the swindlers.That notion never made sense in terms of the actual economic numbers, which showed remarkable growth in the nation's jobs and living standards, and now it's clear that the public has overwhelmingly rejected this trendy vision of a "lost decade."
Fully 73 percent - nearly three out of four - say they think that the 1980s were on the whole a good decade for America. Only 20 percent take the opposite view. And by an even larger margin, 76 percent to 19 percent, Americans say it was a good decade for them personally.
The polling was done by the respected Opinion Research Corp. of Princeton, N.J., for the forthcoming one-hour PBS television special, "Louis Rukeyser's 1991 Money Guide" (Tuesday, Feb. 26, 10 p.m. Eastern time; check local listings). Since I'm friendly with the host, this column got an exclusive advance look at the results.
The cross-section of 1,004 Americans, which carries the usual 3 percent margin of error, did reveal some current concerns about the economy - but, once again, the predominantly negative punditry has average citizens more frightened about the outlook for the country than about their own personal situations (about which they have more direct information).
For example, by far the largest group of respondents (49 percent) don't expect the current recession to end until at least a year from now - and, by a 48 percent-to-42 percent margin, they don't think 1991 will be a good year for America. Slice through to the bottom line, though, and you get a significantly different result: by 77 percent to 19 percent, Americans expect 1991 to be a good year for them personally. Just two different perceptions - or a striking difference between excessive media pessimism and objective personal reality?
Less surprisingly, President Bush is riding high right now. His overall approval rate is a formidable 83 percent, and when the pollsters tried to filter out the war-induced patriotism from this calculation, asking whether Bush was doing a good job "disregarding his conduct of the war in the Persian Gulf," 77 percent still voted yes - including an impressive 65 percent of the black respondents.
The losers in all this include the president's potential Democratic opponents in 1992 (in a series of individual match-ups, none got more than 15 percent against Bush) - and, perhaps less predictably, Ronald Reagan. In similar national polls taken for "Louis Rukeyser's Money Guide" in 1989 and 1990, 59 percent said Reagan's presidency had been excellent or good; now only 49 percent remember Reagan that favorably, while 50 percent recall him as fair or poor. As of now, at least, Bush has truly taken his place in America's heart.
That heart, incidentally, is not as stone-cold as the country's detractors insist. A majority (52 percent) say they would pay more taxes to house the homeless, while other large numbers would accept a hike to pay more police officers to fight crime (48 percent), find a cure for AIDS (46 percent) or even - remember this one? - reduce the deficit (38 percent).
But Congress is not likely to relish another finding of the poll, which dramatically supports the new trend toward institutionalizing rotation in office - which was endorsed in three states last November. Two decades ago, most Americans favored leaving the system alone; now, a stunning 83 percent say they would support a law limiting members of Congress to no more than 12 years in office.