American elections are difficult enough to interpret in Presidential years. In by-election years, like 1986, political analyses assume the proportions of tea-leaf readings—or so television network analyses would seem to suggest. Faced with complex nonreductionistic information, the media resorted to metaphysical quick-fixes to explain complicated events. The U.S. Senate was recaptured by the Democratic Party, giving it control of both houses of Congress; and in sharp contrast, substantial gains were registered by the Republican Party at the state levels, where in the roughly three-quarters of the gubernatorial contests, it pulled to a rough parity with the Democrats.

Network pundits saw these results in a variety of ways, but all were one-sided. The simplest “interpretation” was that the results showed a battle of personalities, and Americans voted for the “moral” candidate in each case. If this were the case, of course, one would have to conclude that the Democratic Party loaded its moralists for the Senate races and the Republican Party for the governors’ races—a clearly preposterous position. Another frequently heard remark was that the results are simply part of a by-election syndrome in which the party out of the White House makes gains over the party in the White House. But if this is so, then how does one account for sweeping Republican gains at the state capitol levels and the virtual stasis in House elections? Clearly, arguments about mysterious, long-term trends fall to earth upon inspection.

Television reporting on election night tended to emphasize the importance of senatorial races over gubernatorial races. Since President Reagan spent most of his time and energy campaigning for Republican Senate candidates— who lost—analysts presumed that the results were a flat repudiation of the President and forecast a lame-duck final two years in office. This interpretation ignores the close Presidential identification with Republican candidates for governor who were victorious in such pivotal mega-states as California and Texas. It further dangerously underestimates the ability of Presidents, especially the current incumbent, to work with party leaders of the opposing party. What was true of Eisenhower and Nixon in their “lame-duck” periods is certainly no less likely to be the case in the final Reagan years.

A final interpretation of the mid-term elections is that they serve notice on the Reagan philosophy, specifically, a demand that judicial conservatism, i.e., “strict Constitutionalism,” be brought up short. This view holds that the promotion of Justice William Rehnquist to the Chief Justice position and the appointment of Justice Antonin Scalia both constitute a departure from older activist Court norms based on compassion and equity. But Court appointments were remote from any specific campaign strategies, much less valuational themes. The fact is that when given an opportunity, as in the California recall petition of Chief Judge Rose E. Bird and her fellow “judicial radicals” (Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso), voters gave an overwhelming mandate for the enforcement of the death penalty. The same broad spectrum of California voters who supported Alan Cranston, a liberal Democrat for Senate, opted for precisely the type of judicial conservatism in California that President Reagan and his Federal judicial appointees stand for.

What, then, is the larger meaning of these by-election results? Taking into consideration voter caprice, personality, and ideology, we are left with the rather obvious fact that the American electorate, or the 38.5 percent of them who voted, expressed discontent with American foreign policy and in equal measure expressed content with American domestic social policy. Aside from the President, the Senate is the body uniquely involved with the manufacture and execution of foreign policy. In this, the American people seemed to be saying to the President that while they like him personally, they are anxious about the current standoff in bilateral negotiations with the Soviet Union at the Reykjavik summit and with potential involvement militarily in Latin America, especially Nicaragua. In this, the results reflect many pre-electoral polls which show that Americans appreciate a strong defense but do not want an interventionist foreign policy that risks direct U.S. involvement. In short, the Vietnam syndrome is alive and well, even if buried under a military security blanket.

In Democratic Party victories from Christopher Dodd in Connecticut to Alan Cranston in California, it is evident that “peace candidates” were victorious in most Senate races. Republican challengers were unable to develop firm and clear foreign policy alternatives. In this, a certain drift and negativism in U.S. foreign policy hurt Republicans more than any specific set of attitudes or postures. Polls indicate that Americans may support President Reagan with respect to not sacrificing a cornerstone of defense such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), but they also seem to be urging the President to try again and harder to reach an accommodation on nuclear arms reduction with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Certainly, the new Senate Democratic majority will be strongly impelled to support such efforts at arms reduction and nuclear test bans.

In Republican Party statehouse victories from Maine to California, it is also clear that the American people are expressing intense satisfaction with the Reagan social agenda, despite the enormity of the Federal deficit, which to most Americans seems remote from their personal lives. The soaring $1.5 billion deficit is clearly overshadowed by a continuing period of relatively low unemployment, a continuing deflationary spiral in which the value of work as measured by the value of the dollar is remarkably stable, and relative low interest rates that permit consumer purchasing to continue at record or near-record levels. State and local governments are second only to the Federal government in determining tax levels and fiscal policies. The closer these Presidential themes of personal choice and free-market decision were echoed by state candidates, the more likely it was that the Presidential “coat-tail effect” remained a factor.

There were, to be sure, exceptions to this bivariate interpretation on both sides of the ledger: In Missouri a Republican senatorial challenger upset a Democratic incumbent; while in Louisiana and Georgia, Democratic challengers defeated Republican office holders. But these very exceptions were rare and unusual enough to give great statistical strength to the aforementioned approach to the meaning of the 1986 mid-term elections. In short, the domestic half of the “Reagan Revolution” survived; the foreign policy half faltered badly.

What this augers for the future is difficult to say. My guess, and it is only that, is that it strengthens the hand of George Bush and Robert Dole as possible Republican Party standard bearers, and Gary Hart or Joseph Bliden as Democratic Party challengers. Both sets of individuals tend to an accommodationist view of foreign policy. Likewise, each of them is committed to fiscal constraint in domestic affairs.

The Republicans, who traditionally count on Middle-American votes, have a market-oriented domestic policy. The Democrats, who must now fight for the same multiclass turf, must likewise exercise restraint in the advocacy of new Federally sponsored social programs, whether for the minorities at one level or the aged at the other.

If one looks at the quasi-secret shipment(s) of armaments to Iran from the bottom up rather than top down, that is, as a crisis in confidence in the conduct of American foreign policy rather than as a leadership or succession crisis at the White House or at the Department of State, the same pattern of disaffection seems to reveal itself Whatever smacks of overseas adventurism, however noble the purpose and whether it be in Nicaragua or Afghanistan or Iran, does not enlist enthusiastic support. The one area of Presidential vulnerability in electoral and public opinion results alike is precisely in this area. Where and when the President is on solid ground, reducing budgetary deficit, holding the line on tax and tax reform, and opposing inflationary tendencies in the economy, there the Reagan Administration has held on to its popularity. The weak Republican Party showing in the Senate, its strong showing in gubernatorial races, and the static condition of the House balance (where the “social agenda” is still unclear)—all point to a centrist campaign in 1988. Both parties will have to seriously estimate the fatal liabilities of extremism. That would appear to be the early warning signal issued by the electorate in 1986.

Whoever the Presidential candidates in 1988, the message is clear, even as the results appear contradictory: support of detente in foreign policy and continuation of the socioeconomic status quo at home. Whether such a centrist outcome is manageable, with all its tensions and contradictions, remains another, far tougher issue. But the longing of Americans to have both is clear enough. The people have spoken: against long wars and against high taxes. The Presidential candidate who can adequately fuse these elements in the imagination of the voters will walk away with the big prize in 1988.