Mr. Reagan's political strategy
Many a Republican politician who must face the voters come this November is worried right now about his leader's position on the budget and taxes. There is much unhappiness in such quarters about the fact that President Reagan is accepting with composure bordering on carelessness the possibility of a series of whopping budget deficits -- the biggest in American history.Skip to next paragraph
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But what are we really talking about?
The Reagan position is clear and explicit.
In a letter to the Republicans of Senate and House in Washington, dated Feb. 13, Mr. Reagan declared:
''When it comes to holding down taxes and ensuring a strengthened national defense to protect the peace there must be no retreat.''
So his top priorities are ''holding down taxes'' and ''national defense.'' Everything else is secondary. He is open to compromise on other matters. He will not compromise either on tax cutting or on guns.
But that does not mean that the economy of the United States will of necessity be forced to endure the burden of the deficits which no retreat on tax cutting or guns would require. It means that Mr. Reagan will not voluntarily give ground on these two points. If there is to be tax cutting and fewer guns, the deed will have to be done by the Congress, not on White House initiative.
The prospect of a deficit for next year in the $100 billion range, with more to follow and no relief in sight even in 1984, has shocked and shaken the Congress. The shock and shake is such that Congress, spurred on by fright in the business community and by sagging prices on the stock exchanges, is likely to do what a lot of thoughtful people in the national community feel must be done.
You and I do not know for a fact that Congress will decree backpedaling on Mr. Reagan's tax cutting and also discover that the need for guns is less urgent than Mr. Reagan thinks. But it does seem to be a reasonable prospect that the Congress will in its collective judgment conclude that deficits of the magnitude accepted by the President simply will not do.
The Congress is being spurred in that direction by the latest trend in interest rates. Those rates had been dropping. The storm cloud of those huge deficits halted the decline and started those interest rates climbing up again. There is not much room for doubt that the prospect of the deficits is the main reason for the change in direction of the interest rates.
So, those who feel that the country's greatest need is for relief from rising interest rates must look to the Congress, not to the White House, for help.
Will they get help?
Perhaps. Everyone knows in Washington that Mr. Reagan is almost alone at the White House in his refusal to consider any departure from tax cutting. His advisers, including Mr. David Stockman, all argued loud and long for modification of his tax cutting position. Any congressman who wants to depart from the Reagan position on taxes can assert that he is only favoring what most of the President's own economic and fiscal advisers are known to favor.
As for guns, when the White House in effect tells the Pentagon to make out a list of everything the generals and admirals would like to have the result is inevitable. The present military shopping list looks like what parents get when they tell a five-year-old child to write down what he wants Santa Claus to bring for Christmas. Everyone in Congress knows that the present Pentagon shopping list can be trimmed back without impairing the real combat power of the armed forces.
But if the deficit is to be reduced by the taxes which Mr. Stockman favors and by judicious trimming of the Pentagon's inflated shopping list we know now who will have to do it. It will be a politically unpopular job. No politician wants to vote for higher rather than lower taxes. No politician wants to vote against guns. But if somebody has to do it, then it will have to be the Congress.
In other words, Mr. Reagan has maneuvered matters deftly and shrewdly. He is in the happy political position of favoring tax cutting and more guns. We all know that he has gone too far on both counts and someone must do something to bring down those prospective deficits. That someone will have to be the Congress. Congress will get the blame.
In the American political tradition Congress usually plays the demagogue role leaving it to the President to do the responsible job. This time Congress will have to do the responsible job -- if it is to be done.