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Stockman: why `revolution' failed

IF David Stockman is less than a leading candidate for a White House testimonial dinner these days, there's little wonder. Stockman, the enfant terrible of the Oval Office, has done it again. First there were his indiscreet remarks in The Atlantic Monthly in December of 1981. Now, Mr. Stockman is charging the Reagan administration with budgetary irresponsibility and bookkeeping legerdemain which have saddled the United States with massive deficits and more than doubled the size of the national debt. Stockman's assertions are found in his new book, ``The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed.'' Any embarrassment that his Atlantic interview might have caused the Reagan White House is as nothing compared with this book.

Stockman's account needs to be kept in perspective. Stockman, and his publisher, have a lot riding on the book -- Stockman having earned in excess of $2 million for his conclusions. Obviously, a hard-hitting account that pulls few punches is likely to sell more copies than a scholarly analysis of US fiscal policy and the budgetmaking process. Thus Stockman serves up salvos against many of the high and mighty in Washington, from within the White House to Congress.

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That said, the book is an important insider look at this administration -- and the federal decisionmaking process. There have been other ``insiders'' who have gone public during or after their public service; James Fallows in the Carter administration, for example, or Raymond Moley back in the Roosevelt New Deal. But Stockman's account may be unique. He is credited with having been the chief architect of Ronald Reagan's initial tax-cut and budget-reduction policy -- to this day, the central agenda of the ``Reagan revolution.'' Stockman's less-than-flattering account of the White House serves as a useful antidote to the glossy view of the administration that has been presented by White House image managers.

Stockman's account is also a useful reminder of the extent to which the decisionmaking process is based on short-term, gut instincts, rather than grand policy. Stockman would likely argue that this bent for the instinctive is a special characteristic of the Reagan White House, given, as he presents it, a President who ``ignores all the palpable relevant facts and wanders in circles'' during the decisionmaking process. But anyone familiar with past presidencies might respond that such short-term calculations and impressionistic judgments are not so uncommon. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was often a late-comer to legislative causes (social security, for example) -- and was more concerned with the central motif of his administration than nitty-gritty legislative or budgetary detail.

Still, Stockman's discussion of ``numbers'' raises serious questions, such as his assertion that the first White House budget figures were virtually plucked from the air, without being based on hard economic data -- and that the White House launched its economic ``revolution'' without anticipating possible ``cataclysmic economic troubles.'' Stockman's account also suggests downright dishonesty in the budget process, such as using the ``magic asterisk'' to identify future savings in budgets, even though there was no discernible evidence that such savings would ever be found.

Stockman's account also raises a worrisome note for the future in his discussion of what he perceives as ``obduracy'' within the Oval Office. Chief of staff Donald Regan, Stockman insists, is obdurate regarding policy -- whatever the President proposes, Mr. Regan bends all ends toward achieving; Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is obdurate on winning larger and larger budgets for defense, whatever the long-range cost to the well-being of the American economy; and President Reagan himself is obdurate in refusing to accept any new tax increase, even though it may take a tax increase to end federal deficits.

Stockman's account -- providing a rare insight into the workings of government and this administration -- deserves a wide reading. It will likely get it.

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