One way to measure the size of the political task Mr. Reagan has given himself is to remember the circumstances under which Winston Churchill told the British people that he promised them only "blood, toil, tears and sweat."
That was when Britain stood alone against the powers of the fascist alliance. That was a proud and desperate moment in British history. Mr. Churchill offered his people guns instead of butter; and they cheered, and accepted the sacrifices he proposed.
Well, President Reagan's new budget in effect others the rank and file of the American people less butter for more guns at a time when there is nothing seen and felt by the average citizen to compare with the dangers which faced Britain after the collapse of France and the retreat from Dunkirk.
It's easy enough to sell a program of guns instead of butter when the danger is clear and spectacularly visible as it was in the dark days of World War II when the armies of fascism were winning on every field of battle and Britain's friends overseas were not yet ready to enter the fight.
It is also relatively easy for a totalitarian dictatorship at almost any time because a dictatorship brooks no opposition. Hitler did it during the buildup to World War II and Stalin did it immediately after the war.
But the United States is a democracy. And the people at large have not been persuaded that there is a clear and imminent danger.
True, some say that there is such a danger and that the world will become the private property of the men of the Kremlin unless urgent and drastic measures are taken in hand at once. But no matter how true this may be the fact remains that, in spite of the danger to Poland, in spite of Soviet troops suppressing dissent in Afghanistan, and in spite of alleged Soviet weapons to the rebels in El Salvador, the average citizen of the United States does not feel himself immediately endangered.
Hence Mr. Reagan's call for less butter but more guns represents an extremely ambitious and almost unprecedented political operation. If he can carry it off he will go down in history as a political genius. Let no one be surprised if he gets less than all of what he is proposing.
It would have been easy enough for him to get more guns, provided he did not propose at the same time to cut back on government support for such things as job retraining for the unemployed, and to cut out altogether legal aid for the poor. And he would also have had a relatively easy task had he proposed the cutbacks and cancellations of human services without at the same time asking for more guns.
But here is not only a case of proposing less butter for the lower economic levels of the country alongside of more guns but also a case of proposing the cuts for the lowly without commensurate cuts for vast segments of industry and agriculture. Tobacco growers are to be asked to make only a token contribution to the new austerity. There is some doubt that milk producers will lose much if any of their subsidy which produces an ocean of surplus milk and mountains of surplus milk products.
The highway industry is going to have its customary $10 billion subsidy cut back by about $400 million for fiscal 1982 which merely means a slight slowing of the outflow of federal funds for the highways and bridges which fewer and fewer people really want. As a matter of fact there probably won't even be a cutback on the highway subsidy but rather an absence of the usual annual increase.
The rationalization for cutting back on subsidies to the poor while maintaining and in some cases even increasing the subsidies to industry, agriculture, and mining is that the purpose is revitalization of American industry. But the beneficiaries of industry are the upper economic classes who benefit from wages and dividends in favored activities.
How does one persuade the average voter from the lower economic levels of the community to see the logic in maintaining the subsidies to such people as tobacco growers while asking the beneficiaries of the service programs to accept austerity?
And while there is excellent justification for some increase in the defense budget, it is also a fact that the proposed increases will benefit stockholders in defense industries.
For a week or so it looked as though the "crisis" (it was officially labeled a "crisis") over El Salvador might provide an emergency atmosphere sufficient to put over a guns instead of butter budget. But the popular reaction to that affair was so massively unenthusiastic that it has now been downplayed. Officially, the press "exaggerated" the matter. It is no longer called the crisis.
Which means that during the balance of this year we are going to find out whether Mr. Reagan is a true political genius or just another politician who miscalculated what the Congress and the voters would accept.