Riding the budget like a hero
President Reagan's strong address to Congress is giving him a fair chance of getting his stern economic measures adopted. He has persuaded the country that he meant exactly what he was saying during the campaign and that his drum-beat demand for radical spending cuts and radical tax cuts was definetely not "campaign oratory."
Ronald Reagan was not fooling. His economic recovery package is for real. Congress will need to realize that he is not kidding.
Even before we get the verdict from Congress, the President may falter by making some unwise compromise, or he may be trapped in some unforeseeable development. But it is my judgement that he has taken a strong stand, and he intends to maintain it.
The President wants spending cuts and tax cuts simultaneously. He has had enough experience to know that he must ask of Congress most of what he needs at once in order to get a good part of it.
Mr. Reagan deserves great credit for the way he has "bitten the bullet" on his recovery program. I have often wondered if any president would have the political courage to do what he is now doing. Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford nibbled a little bit on this issue, but never seemed able to get spending or taxing policy under control.
Mr. Reagan is making a heroic effort to begin.
He is starting just this side of too late.
Will he succeed? This is the crucial question. The answer is uncertain at this stage. Mr. Reagan has some formidable assets today, and he has some political weaknesses. His special assets are these:
He is proving himself to be an unusually effective communicator with the public. Actors are not always good communicators in the political arena. Mr. Reagan is showing himself to be a communicator in the tradition of FDR, in Roosevelt's use of the fireside chats. Mr. Reagan is persuasive and plausible. He is making allies and converts.
He surprised the Democrats by proving that he both understood and respected the independence of Congress, and by showing his willingness to work cooperatively with Congress.
The Democrats soon found that they were mistaken when some of them assumed that they would be dealing with a naive political outsider. Mr. Reagan is proving to be a politician's politician, and both Democrats and Republicans are finding that they can do business with him.
He is basing his confidence on his conviction that the minority party will respect the political realities of the 1980 election.
It may not turn out that way. Already some of the better known Washington correspondents are anticipatting the biggest legislative battle the country has seen since the Franklin Roosevelt years, and they are assuming that Mr. Reagan cannot retain dominance over both houses.
As odd factor, which bears on this question, is that the Democratic leaders -- House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senate minority leader Robert Byrd and numerous of the powerful House Democratic chairmen -- have found that they like working with the President better then they did with Mr. Carter. Perhaps they think they will have a better chance of "managing him" if they combine to score an early political victory. They know they cannot dismiss him as a political amateur. This is why the Democrats, as a whole, are still uncertain what strategy they want to pursue at this time -- whether to give Reagan an early victory or whether to try to demonstrate their strengt to contain Mr. Reagan's budget-cutting, tax-cutting proclivities, without running the risk of infuriating public opinion.
This is the political equation which now faces both the Republicans and the traditional Democrats as they get ready to produce what Senate majority leader Howard Baker foresees as a bubbling, swirling political donnybrook. The out come is unpredictable -- but Mr. Reagan seems in command.