What Mr. Reagan can do over the next two years
THE most intriguing question that seems to emerge from all the fury in Washington over guns for ayatollahs and contras is what it will mean in the area of American-Soviet relations. Mr. Reagan is going to have some trouble finding things to do to keep himself presidentially busy during his remaining two years in office. He has done in domestic affairs about all that he ever seriously wanted to do or tried to do.
In theory, he will try to cut the deficit and move toward a balanced budget, but in fact that job is now in the hands of the Congress. There is little Mr. Reagan himself can do or say to influence taxes or the budget.
In foreign affairs he is effectively blocked from doing any more of the kind of things he loves - bombing Libya, invading Grenada, sending guns to Nicaragua's contras. It is doubtful that the Republican party leadership would permit more such deeds of derring-do.
Just about the only area in foreign affairs where he would have a green light from the leaders of Congress would be in US relations with Russia.
The idea of an arms control agreement has always been popular. Public-opinion polls usually show a substantial majority in favor of arms control agreements and easier relations with the Russians.
Here is an area where Mr. Reagan could spend a lot of time, and get a lot of public attention. It's always good theater when an American president meets a Soviet leader. There is no easier way for Mr. Reagan to get in the spotlight of public attention, in what is generally considered to be a good cause, than by talking to the Russians.
Besides, it's about the only way left for him to do something during his last two years that will take attention away from the present preoccupation with guns for ayatollahs and contras and might also win him a niche in the history books.
We remember Richard Nixon today because he converted China from enemy to friend and signed the first arms control agreement between the US and the Soviet Union. We had almost forgotten about Watergate - until this latest business revived it.
Add that Ronald Reagan is free at last to pursue an arms control agreement with the Russians if he should want to do so. He is free because he has finished his last election campaign. He has no need any longer to do something, or refrain from doing something, just to please a particular bloc of voters or any particular constituency that can control large campaign contributions.
Right up to last election day Mr. Reagan had problems of political expediency. A large part of his personal constituency opposed any agreements with the Soviets. The new conservative coalition, the neo-conservatives, and the arms lobby all brought votes and campaign contributions to him during his two presidential election campaigns and his two midterm efforts to help Republicans. He was under political pressure from them to keep away from the Russians.
But now he is immune to such pressures. It's up to future Republican candidates to cultivate the new and neo-conservatives and the arms lobby. Mr. Reagan will never be operating from public office again.
So should he choose to try for an arms control agreement, he is free to do so. Those who oppose any such effort can no longer restrain him by threatening to withhold votes or funds in the next election.
That leaves two uncertainties. Does he really want to do a deal with the Russians? And is it worth their while to do a deal with him during the rest of his presidency? The second is probably the more important uncertainty.
If you were in Mikhail Gorbachev's shoes in the Kremlin, would you think it worthwhile to devote a lot of time and effort to getting ready for another session with Mr. Reagan? What the Kremlin wants is a slowdown in the American military buildup, particularly in SDI (``star wars''). But would Mr. Reagan be able to give them more than they will get automatically out of congressional restraint on the military budget?
Besides, a lot may change between now and the time when a new US president will take over the White House. My own guess is that the Russians will take a long look at the Washington scene after the dust has settled from the current storm, and conclude that they might just as well wait for the next president.