Reagan: the unfinished chapter

Ronald Reagan puzzles me, and I find that he does the five reporters of the New York Times who have put together a quickie postelection book, "Reagan: The Man, the President." They speak of his simplicity, his directness, his charm. Says Hedrick Smith, he is a "missionary conservative," a "crusader," who has won the opportunity for a "political revolution" -- nay, rather "a conservative political Reformation, that seeks to direct the role of government in American life and perhaps to reshape the national political landscape for the rest of the century."

All very well, but can he do it? Will his campaign utterances stand up under reality and Congress? Reporter Smith observes, "He has told the voters that everything will be fine, that his programs will put people back to work, that the nation will once again enjoy abundant energy, balanced budgets, less government, more defense, and a halt to rampant inflation -- still without sacrifice by the American people." I think that caveat at the end is a little unfair; Mr. Reagan says now, anyway, that there will be lots of sacrifices though he didn't dwell on them strongly in the campaign.

Leonard Silk, a thoughtful financial columnist, goes over the Reagan economic programs in another chapter: support of the Kemp-Roth three-year tax-cut plan, sympathy for return to the gold standard, reiterated hope that he can save billions by eliminating federal "waste, fat and fraud." Mr. Silk doesn't say President Reagan can't do these things (the electoral landslide showed voters felt they were well worth trying), but after weighing them he gives a dubious judgment:

"How can this huge defense build-up be encompassed within a budget plan which also includes huge tax cuts amounting to $250 billion to $300 billion by fiscal 1985?" The Reagan platform will probably be modified, he writes, to "less risky proportions"; if not, "the nation may be in for an exciting adventure in economic policy- making -- with a markedly diminished role for the federal government, and a seriously worsened budgetary and inflationary problem."

I examine these writers for partisan bias, but their mood seems rather to be inquiring, careful, and judicial. The book comes down to the weeks after the election and includes material on the President's life, his switch from Hollywood, and his associates (perhaps Nancy, his wife, is his "closest adviser"). The writers include Adam Clymer, Robert Lindsey, and Richard Burt, the Times' former national security affairs correspondent. They are good men all. The 183-page compilation shows haste in editing and sadly needs an index. But after finishing it the reader is still uncertain; more eager than ever to hear the next chapter: the unfinished chapter that is being written right now in Washington.

Take relations with Russia. Mr. Reagan is a hardliner; he campaigned against the SALT II treaty which he called "fatally flawed." (He also earlier opposed the Panama Canal treaties in his familiar formula: "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we're going to keep it." President Reagan fortunately is not inflexible, and now that the Panama treaties are law he accepts them. Is he flexible on Russia, too?)

The Reagan-dominated Detroit GOP convention adopted a platform urging military "superiority" over the Soviets and "earliest possible deployment" of the MX missile. It promised, however, that "a Republican administration will continue to negotiate arms reductions in Sovoet strategic weapons. . . ." Mr. Reagan is now confident that if Russia faces an adamant America, using its full industrial, technological, and scientific skill to strengthen its defenses, Moscow will make concessions.

The same Reagan optimism points to achievement of a balanced budget through "supply side" economics that sharply reduce federal expenditures and taxes. He believes that a smaller government, with fewer regulators and bureaucrats, will improve national life. It is a bold change from a half century's opposite course; it will take energy, elan, and enthusiasm to carry the program through. It will be a test of one of Mr. Reagan's chief attributes, his ability to communicate. The test is inflation. How long does he have? Says Hedrick Smith at the end of the new book, "Above all else, his formula for managing the economy must produce tangible results within a couple of years." The Times writers are hopeful but the ir anxiety shows through.

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