In his MX and B-1 decision President Reagan once again has shown his capacity for producing a major surprise. Further, he has shown his willingness to go against the desires of many of those conservatives who constituted his hard-core supporters in his rise to the presidency.
Just as Mr. Reagan's appointment of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to the US Supreme Court antagonized many of the Republican right, so his cautious, limited deployment of the MX missile upsets many hawks who have been hoping for an all-out Reagan effort to build up the military.
Reagan's decision to build 100 B-1 bombers, to be deployed in 1986, is being viewed by some presidential watchers here as mainly a political move, one aimed at appeasing the hawks. The administration acknowledges it is only an interim decision, one directed toward filling a need until more effective and sophisticated planes can be developed and deployed.
Reagan's decision, made only after a long period of deliberation -- and in the end with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, presidential adviser Edwin S. Meese III, and the President hammering out the final concept -- holds these implications:
* The President, by intention, sent a signal that the restoration of economic stability in the United States was his primary goal, one that he was not going to undercut by spending one penny more than he felt was necessary to fulfill his commitment to achieve "a margin of safety" for the country.
His delay in deciding on the final basing mode for the MX came only after he became convinced that this would in no way endanger the US.
But, again, presidential reluctance to go full steam ahead toward a military buildup was based principally on his desire that spending for the military not make his goal of balancing the budget in 1984 an impossibility.
* The President, by this decision, has shown his skill in disarming some of his liberal critics -- not the doves who will say his military buildup still is too much, but the bulk of those Democrats who have been calling for more moderation in defense spending. Development of the B-1 bomber won't be palatable to such Democrats as Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. But the expectation here is that Congress now will be able to find some kind of an accommodation with the President's defense proposals.
* By coming up with a defense package that involves much less federal spending than had been anticipated, the President hopes he will kindle new confidence in the business community that he can move toward a more stable economy. Thus, the defense proposals were put together with one eye on a stock market that, of late, has been showing some indication of a renewed trust in Reagan economics.
* Finally, although defense considerations again have been uppermost in the President's thinking, he is known to have had an eye on public reaction -- hoping that his proposals would bring about widespread support from the people.
Thus, by coming to a middle-ground decision, Reagan is hopeful that he will command the backing of a solid majority of Americans -- that they will be convinced that their President has come up with a defense plan that will be enough to close the "window of vulnerability" and, at the same time, not cost them any more than is absolutely necessary.