Detroit — What kind of president would Ronald Reagan really make? As the Republican convention convenes in Detroit, this question is foremost on the minds of delegates and public alike.
Experts on the American presidency and the national political scene likewise are asking seriously: Is the one- time California movie idol up to the world's most awesome job? Have trends in domestic and foreign affairs made him the man of destiny for the early 1980s?
A survey of a dozen presidential historians and political scientists, interviews with long-time Reagan intimates, and a look at his record as California's governor suggest these themes that identify Reagan the man and a Reagan White House:
* The public Reagan emerges as strong in ideological views, but compromising in action. He attracts loyalists, good staff, personal affection. But he is easily led. The private Reagan is also a paradox: Extolling family values, he keeps mum about his own children, two marriages, and family past. His near-poverty origins in Tampico, Ill., were transmuted by Hollywood success. He counts as personal friends the rich and influential.
* The Reagan record, etched over his eight years in the California governor's mansion, shows him easing through 9- to-5 workdays, delegating authority broadly , yet holding his own against a legislature dominated by liberal Democrats.
The years as governor showed he could adapt. He would crusade against high taxes, then raise taxes himself when convinced a state fiscal crisis loomed. In a classic liberal- convinced compromise, he reduced the numbers getting state welfare relief while hiking aid levels.
* Experts divide over whether Mr. Reagan represents the vanguard of a tidal swing in the 1980s. Some see him as the spokesman for asserting individual rights to achievement over regard for mass welfare. More narrowly, others see him the champion of but one of the nation's "four parties" -- the conservative Republican wing. (Mr. Carter leads the conservative Democrats. Champions of the moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats in 1980 have been enhorsed.)
* Lingering echoes of Mr. Reagan's anticommunism days, heard in his current appeals, trouble some political scholars who recall how latent American scapegoating tendencies -- targeting "commies" and "welfare cheats" -- have flared in the past and could again threaten individual careers and rights of privacy.
* Republican Reagan shares with Democrat Carter the handicap of low public confidence. Public esteem that is barely half the approval levels of Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson could handicap the Republican's presidency, some experts say. And the complexities of modern society suggested by auto import tensions and dependence on foreign oil would make Mr. Reagan's "slogan simple" solutions difficult to achieve.
* The Reagan appeal speaks to a national mood of indignation over the country being "bullied about" in international affairs, and impatience to release enterprise from "red tape" and ignite a burst of productivity. He voices frustration over a stymied present and an optimism that better times can be restored.
Mr. Reagan's "bumper sticker" style of speaking, redolent with one-liners, oversimplifies the issues, some experts complain. He uses facts "impressionistically," with an imprecision that disturbs intellectuals while somehow heightening his appeal to popular audiences.
"It's not really what he says, but the force of the man that comes through," says Richard Wirthlin, Mr. Reagan's pollster since 1966 and current campaign strategist.
"Reagan has an Irishman's temper, which people usually overlook," says Mr. Wirthlin. It was this forcefulness of character that decided the 1980 nomination fight the night of the first New Hampshire debate, Mr. Wirthlin claims. While observers on the scene thought Mr. Reagan had not helped himself, the Wirthlin polls showed something else.
"With the last question, about his telling an ethnic joke, I saw the red rise on his neck," Mr. Wirthlin recalls. "Fortunately it stopped a quarter inch from his ear. He said he was wrong. He kept his composure. But he communicated his anger to the public. The next day, 84 percent of the public said they could pic a winner. Reagan beat Bush two to one. We got a 17 point move among those who saw the debate."
William K. Muir, chairman of the political science department at the University of California at Berkeley, sees a decent, well-intentioned side to the Reagan anger, balanced by pragmatism and common sense.
"He wasn't dogmatic, illiberal, inhumane," Mr. Muir says of the Reagan Sacramento era, when welfare reform and the Berkeley campus were reagan targets. "He bargained well, toughly, and with a lot of give and take. He handled the welfare reform act of '71 with great intelligence. He decided that benefits should be greater, but they should be given with greater accuracy to the needy. It was a reasonable goal.
"Reagan's bark was worse than his bite. He saved his time for the big objectives, left details to others, and made good appointments."
"Mr. Reagan seems imprecise in using statistics partly because he is skeptical of economists," Mr. Muir says. "He was angry at the unemployment statistics, I recall, when they were running at 6 percent. He said they were inflated by 2 percent over the previous decade so the liberal economists' comparisons were incorrect. Reagan was right. But he did not have the economists sufficiently on his side."
Mr. Muir sees the times as favoring a Reagan White House.
"People are ready for a person who can articulate things that bind us together, not divide us," Mr. Muir says. "The polarization Eisenhower dealt with was to unify the country -- the split between isolationists and internationalists -- by bringing the US into the international order. This is not quite paralleled todlay.
"The splits over the Vietnam war, race, have set some Americans against other Americans. The recent Miami riot incident shows how it lingers."
While others fear Mr. Reagan could lead to hawkish adventurism abroad, Mr. Muir sees a fundamental caution operating in the Californian.
"Reagan's eloquent concession speech in '76 talked about one major task, to keep the world together without blowing it up," Mr. Muir says. "All problems were subordinate to the bomb. Given [Mr. Reagan's] hawkish position, this takes on greater significance than if it had come from a Carter."
However, Mr. Muir concedes, "In matters of substance, a weakness in a Reagan presidency is that he knows little about foreign affairs. Eisenhower was a genius in foreign affairs who had to be schooled in domestic affairs."
In domestic matters, Mr. Reagan "will stress liberty, the importance of the autonomous individual who makes use of opportunities to succeed," Mr. Muir says. "He will stress individual liberty -- social and civil -- from interference by government and other forces. He will not stress equality, ameliorating the needs of the downtrodden. He will make all government policy turn on the needs of the worst case."
Mr. Muir, like many students of American politics, sees "a dialectic" operating between opposing "liberty" and "equality" themes in history. "Reagan is not a throwback to the '50s era," he says.
But after the Great Society programs, the civil rights push, and othekr dominant "equality" programs of the '60s and early '70s, Mr. Reagan represents a return to "enabling the talented and lucky to do their own thing, and confidence that the country can do its own thing," Mr. Muir says.
Casper Weinberger, Reaganhs finance chief in California and a Nixon cabinet veteran in Washington, cautions that one "can't run a presidency like the governorship." Yet Mr. Weinberger is bullish about a Reagan White House.
"Reaganhs human qualities tend to be overlooked," Mr. Weinberger says. "He's a very warm, human, and extraordinarily funny person.
"He can stir up immense enthusiasm for his basic philosophical beliefs. Yet he is not a rigid ideologue who would let his philosophical rudder run him up on the rocks. He is eminently practical. He saw, with some bitterness, after campaigning for lower taxes, that he had to raise taxes when he came into office. I know. I was one of those who argued he had to do so.
"He opposed withholding taxes on the ideolocial ground that it increased the bureaucracy, but he agreed to accept it when convinced the government needed to take in the money in advance, or the costs would have been greater."
Others, however, see Mr. Reagan more as the beneficiary of general conservative forces, and less as a pragmatic politician.
"The forces of conservatism have been gathering for years," says presidential historian James McGregor Burns. "The Reagan phenomenon's precedents can be found in California propositions and a hundred other ways, beginning in frustrations with Goldwater in 1964. Reagan would have won the nomination in ' 76 if he had not run against an incumbent president."
Mr. Burns has misgivings about how much is really known about Mr. Reagan -- likening the current situation to a sketchiness about jimmy Carter in 1976.
"We kept hearing 'peanut farmer, peanut farmer, peanut farmer,'" Mr. Burns says. "He wasn't a peanut farmer. He's a businessman, a commodities man. Nobody took the trouble to go down there to see what kind of governor he was. Maybe we would have found out things that would have explained what has followed."
Historian James David Barber of Duke University, known for his cataloging of presidential types, finds Messrs. Carter and Reagan in some ways similar.
"I don't see any great sign of vision in either of them, nor in Mr. Anderson for that matter," Mr. Barber says.
"Reagan is a candidate of nostalgia, a return to mythical better times that didn't really exist. His rhetoric appeals to our hunger for a romanticized past.
"There is no evidence of a well-worked-out vision of where [Mr. Reagan] wants the US to go in the next 10 years," Mr. Barber says. "But neither is there with the other two candidates. This lack of vision is the underlying political problem in 1980.
"I think Reagan is a passive-positve type. He is a sweetheart who is very much a reflection of his advisers. In California he had som pretty good advisers and did not do any crazy things. Maybe it would be the same in the White House.
"The deviation between his ideology and his action are a little comforting," Mr. Barber says, "but is also frightening, suggesting a drift between political talk and reality. This could lead to disillusionment. It is dangerous in a democracy for the great political conversation to lose its attractiveness as a serious matter. If the citizenry thinks no one means what is said, it's a great loss."
Mr. Carter, in contrast is "active-positive" in the Barber scale. "This means [Mr. Carter is] probably not dangerous in the largest sense in the presidency," Mr. Barber says. "He is not likely to make a personally rooted mistake like a Watergate or a Vietnam."
The public in 1980 is much like the public in the mid-'50s, Mr. Barber says. "People are looking again for an easingm election, they want an end to trouble and controversy.
"In 1952, we had mainly a reaction agaisnt Harry Truman. There was a worry Eisenhower might have been too authoritarian. The campaign focused on the Truman scandals and whether Stevenson would disown him. in '56 there was a desire for someone who was, to be sure, a bumbler, not energetic, but a real good guy. By '56, the reason for voting for Eisenhower had become 'I like him.'
"As long as Reagan exudes his charm, that's a plus," Mr. Barber says. "But Reagan has to be pressed on whether he knows the facts of the world he's living in now. We want a president who's very curious about the world, who has a hunger to understand the problems and facts. He hasn't demonstrated this hunger by his record to date."
Historically viewed, instead of leading massive public movements, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Carter are standing on rhater small islands of popular support, says Everett Ladd, a University of Connecticut expert on opinion trends.
"From the 1952 Eisenhower-Stevenson election through the Nixon-Kennedy era, candidates had robust positive approval ratings," Mr. Ladd says. "Eisenhower got a highly favorable rating from 65 percent of the voters in '56, in Gallup data. Johnson got 59 percent in May '64.
"The trend started down with Goldwater in '64 and has been [declining] for everybody since then. In May, 1980, Carter stood at 26 percent and Reagan 23 percent in the Gallup data."
Despite assertions of a conservative tide in 1980, "Reagan hasn't really caught on," Mr. Ladd says. "He's already lost something important -- if it's vital he convince the mass public they can have confidence in him."
Reagan's public is very skewed to the upper income, conventional Republican voters, according to Mr. Ladd's analysis. One-third to 40 percent of blue-collar Republicans say they will vote for candidates Anderson or Carter.
Mr Ladd sees and ambivalence, not a clearcut national swing on conservative-liberal issues. "The evidence of ambivalence is overwhelming. Everyday there's more data. Ask the public waht should we do about Ramsey Clar: The majority say they don't approve [of his sel-appointed mission to Iran] but they don't want him punished."
"If you have that ambivalence, you have ambivalent candidates coming to the fore," Mr. Ladd says. "That may be the destiny factor in 1980.
"Reagan and Carter are reamrkably soft, wish-washy in a programmatic sense despite the idological ferver in their rhetoric. You get a Reagan who railed against the professors at Berkeley but raised the university's budget. I see a Reagan presidency a lot like a Carter presidency. Rhetorically strong but programmatically weak."
Thomas Cronin, Colorado College political scientist and author of the recently published book "State of the Presidency," calls Mr. Reagan an "activist" who would be quickly frustrated in the White House by the complexities of getting things done.
"He's an activist in wanting things changed," Mr. Cronin says. "He would move quickly to deregulate the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The campaign platform will call for changes in taxes, weapons systems."
But after the first half year in setting new priorities, Mr. reagan may get bogged down by unemployment, the energy situation, and other stubborn problems any president then would face, Mr. Cronin predicts.
"In the past, presidents were able to be distributors of the gains, Santa Claus-like," Mr. Cronin says. "now they have to be distributors of losses, bearers of bad news. Presidents -- including a Reagan -- will continue to be more important but less popular.
"There's a nationalism at work," Mr. Cronin syas in explaining the national mood behind the election of the next president. "People fear the US role in the world is diminishing and Jimmy Carter is not able to do anything about it. This is disconcerting to ally and foe alike.
"People in the suburbs and the countryside say we're being pushed around too much -- by Helmut Schmidt, Iran, Japan's automakers. Carter has been unable to stand up and make us a force. This sets the stage for Reagan's slogan, 'let's make America great again.'"
The public liks nationalism to inflation, Mr. Cronin says: "They feel their pocketbooks are less secure because we're being pushed around. They think our position is threatened by trade deficits, foreign products. Maybe Carter shouldn't be fauleted as much as he is. But the public sense a link between foreign policy and the economy that Reagan is exploiting."
A danger coudl lurk in a Reagan-gets-tough attitude, some political experts say.
"The great uncertainty about Reagan is foreign affairs," says Morris Fiorina, a California Institute of Technology political scientist.
"All the arguments about his running California as a governor are not really to the point," Mr. Fiorina says. "There may be a lot of sentiment for less spending. Maybe a rollback of government regulation would be popular.
"But what really turns conservatives on is getting 'commies' -- using the defense budget to face up to them wherever and whenever they move in the world.
"Some people feel the country is v ery much in a hawkish mood," Mr. Fiorina says. "But Congress is way ahead of the country on defense issues. True, Iran shocked everybody. [The embassy hostage seizure] was clearly unprovoked.
"But thee isn't the popular support for something like a Persian Gulf intervention. It would be abig mistake to think we're in an incipient hawkish era. There could be draft resistance and demosntrations in the street, campuses lighting up again.
"Reagan is roughly in the same mold as Goldwater on military matters," Mr. Fiorina says. "But the Goldwater era on the whole was mroe adventurous for the US in intervening abroad, with Kennedy and Johnson getting ready for Vietnam. Siding with Congress's rush to build the MX missile, etc., is misreading the mood of the public."
The Reagan persona still puzzles some professional president watchers.
"It seems odd that Goldwater ws thought beyond the pale, but Reagan seems acceptable," says Michael Rogin of the University of California at Berkeley. "Reagan seems to me the most impenetrable of the major right-wing characters. He has done such a good job in constructing a public persona, we wonder who the man is.
"He may be just what he appears to be," Mr. Rogin says.
"Reagan represents and speaks to the fantasy lives of people, their grivances. resentments, and rage. But his is separae from his actions.
"He talks about family in the abstract, but not about his own family. Divorced, his father supposedly an alcoholic -- his own family past appears more problematic than his rhetoric.
"Too often the pursuit of individual liberty sounds like punishing somebody else," Mr. Rogin says. "Why is the family falling apart? Why isn't America anymore a power? Someone's to blame. Reagan's record shows he won't act on his rhetoric. But it still makes me nervous."