Political notes, USA, spring 1982
Did you happen to notice the other day that President Reagan wrote a letter in favor of legislation to ''restore protection of the law to children before birth''?
Well, that set me to thinking about politics and who is likely to get the nominations of the two major American political parties the next time around.
There is a lot of talk of that kind right now among the ''pols'' and the political experts. By reading among my colleagues in the column writing trade I gather that Edward Kennedy seems to be leading the race among Democrats and that Republicans are beginning to wonder whether their next standard-bearer is more likely to be Vice-President Bush or Jack F. Kemp, the conservative Republican congressman from upstate New York who more or less leads the field on the right side of his party.
A lot of the talk is based on the assumption that Mr. Reagan is going to decide some time in late 1983 or early 1984 that one term will be a fine thing for him and he might as well count his chips and go home at the end of four years in the White House. But is that really a plausible scenario?
True, if the United States economy behaves as badly as a lot of Democrats are (wishfully?) predicting, there can be little doubt. Under such circumstances Mr. Reagan will undoubtedly find that his nostalgia for ranch life in California takes precedence over all else.
But my own hunch all along has been that there is a lot of vitality in the US economy and that predictions of a worse recession are premature. I note that as of May 25 the Wall Street Journal picks up that theme and entertains the possibility of a turn for the better coming almost anytime now and gaining momentum through 1983.
If that happens, would Mr. Reagan be so enamored of ranch life in California? How many presidents have wanted to retire at the end of just one four-year term? Several have been retired by a disgruntled electorate, but I cannot think of a single one who did it voluntarily during this century. Calvin Coolidge was furious when his party took literally his statement, ''I do not choose to run.'' Herbert Hoover fought hard for reelection. So did Jimmy Carter. Men who enjoy four years in the White House seem reluctant to leave.
But if Mr. Reagan is to be reelected for a second term he needs one thing more going for him than only a vigorous economic revival. Of course that is the most important single thing. But he also must have proved his skill as a politician. Mr. Reagan proved his skill as a campaigner in 1980. But, after four years during which many an enthusiastic follower of the first election campaign has been disappointed by performance, running for reelection is another matter.
That is where the Reagan letter to Senator Helms saying he hopes for congressional action against abortion comes into the story.
There is not going to be any such legislation. Opposition in Congress and around the country is more than sufficient to block off any actual legislation to that effect. Hence it is a political gesture, not an act of government.
By making the gesture Mr. Reagan gets credit among the ''moral majority'' and social right-wing elements. But since nothing will come of it there are no actual political results. It is a safe political position to take up.
Mr. Reagan has taken up other equally safe political positions. He has refused to agree to new taxes or to heavy cuts in the defense program. Yet Congress is virtually certain to insist on the defense cuts and the new taxes which are essential if the budget is to be moved toward balance.
The same applies to curbs on social security. Mr. Reagan himself will probably manage to escape the responsibility for trimming down some of those expensive features of the social security system which are threatening to rush it toward bankruptcy. Yet everyone in politics in Washington knows that the social security system is out of control and that such features as indexing payments to the inflation rate (on the high side at that) will have to be trimmed back if the system is to survive.
The question is who is to get the political blame for doing those things which must be done to shore up the foundations of the American economy.
The way things are going now the chances seem reasonably good that what must be done will be done and that Mr. Reagan will avoid the political blame. The other way of putting it is that he understands the fine art of politics, and is practicing that art. Which means in turn that talk about other candidates for 1984 may be as premature as talk about economic disaster ahead.