Reagan vs. Nixon
As the Reagan administration approaches the end of its first quarter year in office, its outlines and directions become more distinct. We can see where it is trying to go. We see that it is trying in both domestic and foreign policy to reverse the directions which were set during the presidency of Richard Nixon.
In domestic affairs the Reagan team is obviously sincere about its effort to cut back substantially on the human services which decend from the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society programs initiated by Democrats but accepted and confirmed by President Nixon. Mr. Reagan is trying to transfer the monies to be saved from the human services accounts to the military account. More guns from less butter.
Mr. Nixon had preached conservative domestic policies (balanced budgets, sound dollar, stable prices), but he ended up practicing Keynesian economics. His administration had a chance to head off the double-digit inflation which plagues the United States today, but he let that chance go by. The groundwork for inflation had, of course, been laid by Lyndon Johnson's miscalculation of the length and costs of the Vietnam war. But inflation did not break loose and begin to build momentum until the public realized that Mr. Nixon was a preacher but not a practicer of conservative economics.
The human services programs of the Democrats were still reversible politically during the Nixon years. But when a Republican president failed to try to reverse them, they became habit-forming. Mr. Reagan's heavy task is to try to break that habit.
There was a coherent logic to the whole Nixon program. His foreign policy dovetailed with his domestic. Since he was not prepared except for superficial cosmetics to reverse the liberal spending on human services initiated by the Democrats he needed to cut back on military spending.
To justify reduced military spending he had to give up the idea of maintaining substantial military superiority over the Soviet Union. To justify that, he had to reopen relations with China thus clearing the way for China to pull away from Moscow and some day perhaps join in an anti-Soviet coalition. But to be extra justifiable it also called for less friction in Soviet-US relations. Detente was as essential a feature of Nixon policies as was the opening to Peking. Both were necessary if Moscow was to be allowed to gain substantial "equivalence" in military power.
There is equal coherence in Reagan policy. If the goal is to regain full military equivalence with the Soviets, plus a little extra for a margin of safety, then it is necessary to cut back on some other major area of federal spending. It is not possible even for the enormously wealthy United States to outbuild the Soviets in weapons and at the same time raise the living standards of the lower third of the population to a level of affluence.
Nixon and Reagan policies are, each of them, rational and logical and coherent. But they are the reverse of each other. The Nixon policies presumed the possibility of peaceful although competitive coexistence between the US and the USSR. They also assumed that the US and its allies, friends, and associates would be strong enough for their mutual security and well-being even if the Soviet Union did outbuild the US in some categories of military power. Hence, the US could afford to continue the "entitlement" programs bequeathed by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.
Reagan policy starts with a contrary assumption. The Soviet Union is implacably hostile to the United States and its allies and to its political and economic system. The Soviet Union would take advantage of military superiority over the United States. The Soviet Union wages a constant, often unseen struggle against the United States. Its military power must at the very least be balanced off by equal US military power. No system of alliances is sufficient to balance off Soviet superiority over the US.
If the above is a sound premise, then Mr. Reagan has no choice but to do what has become his first priority: the cutting back on the human and social services which had become the fastest rising segment of the federal budget.
The doctrine of the implacable Soviet menace is as essential to the Reagan program as was its reverse to the Nixon program. In Nixon doctrine the Soviet Union is manageable. In Reagan doctrine it must be overpowered.
One cannot foresee the end result of a policy from being able to see the aim of the policy. But we do see the aim and we can know that so long as the premise (the implacable Soviet menace) is accepted, there is likely to be progress in the intended direction. I find it particularly interesting that the Democrats have not yet attempted to challenge the premise. This would seem to mean that the policy of cutting back on the human and social services is still viable political ly.