EASTPOINTE, Mich. -- The phone rang recently at the Macomb County Democratic Committee headquarters and Leo LaLonde, the county chairman, took an unsolicited call from Charles Leibel, a self-proclaimed Reagan Democrat. Informing the chairman that he wanted to come back to the party, LaLonde recalls, the caller asked: "What's my penance?"
Not all the Reagan Democrats who helped give Ronald Reagan 52 percent of the county vote in 1980, 66 percent in 1984 and 65 percent to George Bush in 1988 are ready to repent their sin of defecting to the Republicans over the past 12 years. But there is more than enough dissatisfaction with President Bush among them and other Reagan Democrats around the state to seriously undermine his hopes to carry Michigan's 18 electoral votes, critical to his game plan.
Four years ago, Bush beat Michael Dukakis by 54 percent to 46 percent in Michigan and has never lost an election in the state, having bested even Reagan himself in the 1980 Republican primary. But Leibel's views reflect others heard in conversations with other Democrats in this traditional blue-collar, suburban Democratic stronghold just north of Detroit who went off the party reservation in the Reagan-Bush years.
"I voted for Reagan because to me he represented strength," he says. "I didn't agree with all the elements of the Republican platform and I considered myself a Democrat. I felt for many years that I never left my party but it had left me, by moving so far to the left. Every loudmouth special interest could get a hearing."
Now, he says, the combination of Bill Clinton seeming to him to be more of a moderate, and his sense that Bush "appears he's not able to cope" with the changing circumstances abroad and at home, has persuaded him to end his 12-year dalliance with the Republicans.
Leibel is typical of Macomb County Democrats who still have a glint in their eyes for Reagan that doesn't carry over to Bush. In the past two years Leibel has lost two jobs at companies that, he says, "evaporated out from under me," without any evidence to him that Bush, who "waffles all over the map," has tried to stem the tide.
Others who haven't felt the personal pinch are nervously looking over their shoulders at General Motors and other layoffs that cost Michigan 85,000 jobs over the past four years, and at the scheduled closing of its Willow Run plant with the loss of 6,000 jobs. With unemployment at 9 percent for more than a year, assurances from Bush and Republican Gov. John Engler, his state campaign chairman, that things are getting better get bitter receptions.
Still, LaLonde says, he's not overly confident that the phenomenon of the Reagan Democrat is over in Macomb County, the nearly lily-white, middle-class enclave where it has received its most prominent publicity over the past 12 years, and where Clinton has made a special pitch for racial unity and a return to the Democratic fold. "People really don't change until they hit rock-bottom," the county chairman says. "In 1932, they did, and they went for FDR. They may not be at rock-bottom yet."
Engler argues that the category of Reagan Democrat is passe anyway. "A lot of them are independents or Republicans in fact, and don't exist in that Reagan Democrat mold," he says. "That's one reason I'm governor of Michigan today. The political landscape has changed."
If Bush needs to hold the Reagan Democrats, Clinton needs not only to wrest them away but also to make up a deficiency that helped Bush whip Dukakis in 1988. Steve Weiss, Clinton's state campaign manager, notes that turnout among black voters fell off sharply in Wayne County, including Detroit, where a Democrat needs a comfortable cushion with which to withstand large GOP margins in the more affluent suburbs and western Michigan.
In 1988, Detroit's powerful black mayor, Coleman Young, was notably cool to Dukakis, but this year he is behind Clinton, and the Arkansas governor on his own has diligently worked the black clergymen's network -- headed by a former Arkansan. If the blacks turn out in force for Clinton in November, Bush will need the Reagan Democrats even more -- in an economic climate that greatly compounds his task.