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The philosophical struggle

OBSERVERS of the President have been slow in finding out, as one of them puts it, ``what Reagan is up to.'' Their discovery: that the struggle over the budget deficit really centers on political philosophy and whether President Reagan is going to be allowed to carry on his counterrevolution against New Deal and post-New Deal social programs.

Mr. Reagan hasn't been hiding his intentions. It's been vintage Reagan since he first emerged on the political scene that his chief goal is to reduce the size of the federal government. And how would he do it? By cutting spending programs. And what programs? Not military. He's always been for a military buildup.

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It seems almost impossible to believe that many of those who don't see eye to eye with Reagan are just waking up to the fact that there is a philosophical thrust behind the President's budget-deficit-cutting proposal. He hopes to contend that:

A. He helped bring about a deficit reduction that shored up the economy.

B. He used this reduction effectively to carry on his counterrevolution against the New Deal and the Great Society.

At some point, too, critics of Mr. Reagan may finally come around to believing that the President has really meant it when he has contended, again and again, that he is adamantly opposed to raising taxes as a means of dealing with the deficit.

Much of the Mondale-Ferraro rhetoric during last fall's presidential campaign was directed toward convincing voters that Reagan's no-tax promise was simply campaign fluff and that it would disappear right after the election when he began to deal with the economy.

Voters evidently believed Reagan. And it is developing that they were correct in doing so.

One does not have to say that Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, and other Democrats were practicing demagoguery when they accused Reagan of his ``secret'' plan to increase taxes. From their point of view, Mr. Reagan would have had no alternative than to raise revenue that way if he were to deal realistically with the deficit.

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But Democratic reasoning included the need to maintain, at least in large part, programs Reagan would either do away with or drastically reduce in size and cost. They obviously believed that the President would not, or could not, carry through a domestic-spending-cut program of the dimensions he has proposed.

It does not follow that the President will necessarily win in this philosophical struggle. The Senate has already hacked away at the Reagan budget: voting, at least at this juncture, against cutting social security cost-of-living benefits and the Reagan effort to get more money for the military beyond funds to offset inflation. Still, this much is clear:

The President has already won quite a bit.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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