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The Tuesday Night Massacre


By Paul M. Barrett and Robert O. Boorstin

The members of the Leverett House social committee thought they had it all figured out. The election was "too close to call," so they postponed their electoral vote-counting party from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

As it turned out, their planning went for nought. At 8:15 p.m., NBC anchorman John Chancellor looked up from his script, shook his head in amazement and told the American people that they had already elected a president--and his name was Ronald Reagan.

The end began for Jimmy Carter in Cleveland, the analysts surmised in the quadrennial post-mortems. The huge "undecided" chunk of the American electorate, dissatisfied with its choice and unhappy with its leader, drifted to the right and settled in Reagan's column.

The "bump" in the polls had held firm over the weekend. The Ayatollah in the words of one professor, had "cast his vote too late" and everyone--union members, women, Southerners--was ready to cast an elected incumbent out of office for the first time since 1932.

Reagan's quick victory took a lot of people by surprise--especially the Carter supporters who gathered in a Washington ballroom to hear their candidate say, "it hurts"--but what the former California governor took with him put many into electoral shock.

As Tuesday night faded into Wednesday morning, shock gave way to an aching acceptance of defeat for the entire Democratic Party. Gliding gracefully on Reagan's coattails, Republicans slipped past their opponents in all parts of the country. They grabbed control of the Senate for the first time in 25 years, inched to within striking distance in the House of Representatives, and won clear victories in the battle for governorships and state legislatures.

Notable victims of the GOP on-slaught included the most venerable giants of the liberal old guard: Sens. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), Frank Church (D-Idaho), and Reps. Al Ullman (D-Ore.) and John Brademas (D-Ind.).

Many fell amidst the poison-tipped arrows launched by New Right hit squads, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee.

"We've seen a new virulence and a new velocity to this extremism that is unique in American political history," a bitter McGovern said on the evening of his defeat.

Other assassins were also at work. Voters throughout the country had lashed out at Congressmen they viewed as unresponsive to state needs and to the more general pressures of continued inflation and sinking U.S. prestige abroad. Above all, Americans were sick and tired of Jimmy Carter and those who stood behind him.

"The Republican landslide was less a rejection of liberalism than a repudiation of Carter," Ron Brown, a top aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) and a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government said earlier this week. "Jimmy Carter was the albatross for the Democrats this year."

The Republican victory--though surprising in its magnitude--came as less of a shock to experts who have noted a GOP recovery since the beginning of the 1970s.

While academics argue whether 1980 will initiate a lasting political realignment, Congress will begin reorganizing in a special added session next week. In the Senate, veteran Republicans take over in January as committee chairmen, and will ready their charges for Reagan's tax-cutting and sword rattling.

In Cambridge, that prospect prompted more than 200 Harvard students to appear for a "morning after" rally and pledge to "fight the New Right."

The pragmatic people at the Kennedy School of Government, meanwhile, were busy figuring out how many displaced Democrats would accept Institute of Politics' offers to spend next term in Cambridge.

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