In one sense there was little real news in the David Stockman affair. It confirmed what we had learned from the events of the previous two weeks. The budget is not going to be balanced in 1984. The President has dug in his heels on any deferring, delaying, or undoing of his tax cuts. The President is almost equally adamant against any cutback in his defense program. The President will continue to press Congress for more cuts in nondefense federal programs, although with little prospect of success.
All of that comes out loud and clear both from the article in the Atlantic magazine, which exposed Mr. Stockman's views more graphically and in sharper focus than he likes, and from Mr. Stockman's own version of his views in the press conference he held after his carpeting at the White House.
The difference between the two, as he himself confirmed, is in phraseology and dramatic overtones, not in substance. The magazine version was sharper. The version Mr. Stockman provided is less useful to the political opposition. But they say the same thing. They lay out as it has not been laid out before, and from the man who has until now been at the center of the President's economic program, exactly what are the priorities of the Reagan administration.
During previous months there were assertions about what Mr. Reagan considers most important. Republicans had one set of versions. Democrats phrased it differently. But not until the new men in Washington have made their opening decisions does the public generally, and indeed the new men themselves, begin to get a clear picture of what it is all about. Now, thanks to this affair of the public exposition of Mr. Stockman's private views, it is not only apparent, it is even confirmed from inside the administration itself.
The most important single thing to Mr. Reagan is the tax cuts. The Congress is almost certainly ready right now to defer some of the cuts, or enact new taxes. It is worried about the effect on the economy of the deficit which grows with every fresh set of figures about the current state of the economy and of its prospects.
Mr. Reagan probably could, were he so inclined, keep the deficit down by accepting a delay or partial reduction in his tax cuts. He could also reduce the prospective deficit substantially by committing less money for new weapons. He cannot reduce it by further cuts in welfare programs or from any substantial cuts in social security because Congress is just as adamant on this point as Mr. Reagan is on defense spending.
Add two other ingredients to the above.
First, Congress is growing restless about the defense program. It is almost certain to cancel the B-1 bomber, on the grounds that the old B-52 bombers can serve adequately as manned bombers until the new ''Stealth'' bomber comes along. Congress may also cancel the MX on the grounds that it does not add enough more to American security to justify the cost. In the end Congress may keep the Reagan defense program almost down to the levels projected by Mr. Carter.
Second, Mr. Reagan almost daily cuts back or out by federal regulation and executive authority more of the rules and regulations which annoy business and industry but were intended to protect the consumer and the environment. Those measures which were aimed at cleaner air, purer water, wildlife sanctuaries, safer automobiles - these and more like them - are being trimmed or eliminated.
Put all these elements together and we can see fairly clearly both what is most important to the Reagan administration and where it is most likely to go.
It is concerned first and foremost with tax relief for middle and upper economic slices of the American community. They were promised relief from creeping taxation and from the increasing weight of the ''entitlement'' programs. It is concerned equally with the burden on industry of consumer and environmental protection.
Mr. Reagan can keep his tax cuts, because it is always easier to put a tax cut through Congress than to enact a new tax or repeal a cut. He has the tax cut. Congress is not likely to take it away. And he can have his repeal of extra-strong bumpers on cars, abatement of clean air targets, a slower pace on clean water - because these are matters of regulation and administrative interpretation.
But he will not get as much in new weapons as he has proposed. Congress will see to that. And there will be no balanced budget by 1984, or an end to deficits , or an end to inflation or a return to a stable dollar and steady economy.
In short, the middle and upper economic classes are going to get from Mr. Reagan a respite from wealth transfer to the less well off. And industry will get a respite from consumers and environmentalists. And that will be just about the substance of it all.
What it means politically is another matter. There will be an interesting reading in the 1982 midterm elections. At that point we will get a better indication than is yet possible on whether a hiatus in wealth transfer from middle and upper to lower economic layers is to be long-term or only a four-year experience for the American people.