Charting the political reefs ahead for Reagan
The early torrid days of summer have begun to test the patience and resourcefulness of the Reagan administration, on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.
Domestically, the Republican-controlled Senate has rebuffed the White House by insisting on playing out its negotiating role with House budget conferees, instead of simply accepting the House version as urged by Reagan budget whiz David A. Stockman.
The Democrats have begun to find their voice as the loyal opposition. The Democratic leaders are pushing forward young, attractive spokesmen like Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado on issues ranging from tax to environmental policy. In the House, Ways and Means chairman Don Rostenkowski has begun a careful tax-writing campaign to win over oil-state Democrats with tax write-offs for producers, and Northern moderate Republicans with tax breaks for small businesses.
In foreign policy, the White House has had to move to end the rancor between backers of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and the White House's internal national security chief Richard V. Allen.
To do so, the President has drawn on a lesson from the early, troubled days of his election campaign. Then he fired campaign director John Sears and replaced him with a team of a half dozen advisers. Now he has reduced the daily personal briefing role of Mr. Allen, and has begun to meet three morning a week with his entire top echelon for national security: Vice-President George Bush, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, and Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey, plus Mr. Allen and top White House aides Edwin Meese III, James Baker III, and Michael Deaver.
On social issues, the administration was disappointed when New Right activists quickly swung against the President over the nomination of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. In part, the White House sees an advantage in this attack, since it could make the administration appear more moderate.
But Reagan political pros, looking ahead to next year's congressional elections, see trouble brewing.
The Democrats' resourcefulness in putting together an alternative tax bill could mean the second major White House defeat -- the first having come with rejection of the Reagan social security reforms. Reaganites worry that the earlier budget successes could lead the press to drastically overplay a tax bill loss.
Beyond this, however, even if the White House wins again on taxes, some of the President's congressional quarterbacks complain that his strategy is built too much on economic policy alone.
"I'm concerned about what the White House does after the economic issues are settled," one Reagan political aide told the Monitor. "You need more than a one-issue White House. On the social issues, there has to be a priority list for September.The danger is Jesse Helms [the conservative North Carolina Republican senator] might be stepping into the void."
Max Friedersdorf, the president's liaison with Congress, has been publicly preparing the way for some White House defeats on the Hill. If not on the tax battle, then on farm, clean-air, communications, and defense issues, the President will have to forge coalitions anew.
On the social issues like abortion, Mr. Friedersdorf says the Predident is likely to let members vote their own way. In other words, the President would declare his own view but not lobby. The strategy worries some Republican Party professionals who see the prospect of a conservative spectable ruining their attempts to woo the loyalty of moderate voters.
On the economy, the White House has not yet been able to persuade Wall Street's money men that Mr. Reagan's program will work the wonders against inflation he has forecast. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan wonders publicly why a half year of lower-than-double-digit inflation has not been enough to convince the investment community, wohse decisions influence interest rates, that inflation can be contained.
The prime interest rate rose above 20 percent again last week. The high US rates, attracting funds from abroad, have become a major agenda item at next week's economic summit at Ottawa.
The high interest rates are also pushing up spending estimates for the next fiscal year. Defense spending alone for fiscal 1982 could run as much as $10 billion over previous estimates, according to recent reports. To balance the budget by 1984, as promised during the campaign, the administration will have to find substantially more than the $44 billion it has already committed itself to in further spending cuts.
The question for the President is how long Congress will acquiesce to the White House leadership. The Senate has already insisted on playing out its own budget hand through the final steps of passage. Reagan is being challenged again by the Democrats on the tax bill, who have apparently learned from their humiliating rout on the budget.
"No victory is ever final in the Congress," says Mr. Friedersdorf, anticipating a summer of tough Capitol Hill maneuvering for the President.