Why Reagan is still riding high

By , Godrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

A good politician has been defined as someone who can turn almost any situation to his advantage.

Whatever else Ronald Reagan is, he is a whiz of a politician. One wonders what he might have done if he had been the president, instead of Hoover, in the Great Depression. Could he have bailed himself out - perhaps by launching a rescue mission? Could he somehow have fixed the blame on the Democrats?

Without television this superb communicator may not have been able to come out from under that disaster. But he would, somehow or other, have been sending out a message of hope. And he probably would have picked up some support even from those in the worst economic straits.

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One can even visualize some poor down-and-outer saying, ''Well, this depression wasn't really Reagan's fault. He's doing the best he can to get us out of it. And, as he says, it's going to take some time to get back to better times once again.''

This doesn't mean that Reagan is wily. That he definitely is not. Nothing in his record or from those who know him well suggests he is politically manipulative. He simply has the ''feel'' to say and do the things that help him win the day. His political instincts are superb.

Take the night in New Hampshire when he won the primaries and the presidency. The details of what happened tend to fade from memory. But what is certain is that, from the voters' point of view, Reagan defeated George Bush, then the front-runner, in what happened at the debate that night.

And Reagan did it not by overpowering Bush on the issues. Instead, he put Bush in the position of looking small and petty, of trying to keep the other candidates out of the debate, while Reagan was opening the doors to them.

The voters liked what they perceived as Reagan's decent, fair-play position on this little matter. And they rewarded him with a victory in the New Hampshire primary. From that point on Mr. Reagan's quest for the presidency was one of almost uninterrupted momentum and success.

Today some other president would likely be in a heap of trouble. For one, unemployment is more than 10 percent. As columnist Kevin Phillips points out, the last time the mid-term elections were fought with autumn unemployment at 7 percent or more - in 1958 - the GOP lost almost 50 seats. And as columnist David Broder puts it: ''By some historical standards, the 1982 victory ought to come gift-wrapped to the Democrats, with a card reading, 'compliments of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Recession.' ''

This stagnant economy could well have turned Reagan into a President in decline, waiting for his term to run out. But Reagan, defying political gravity, is still riding high. He tells the public that the recession is the fault of the Democrats. And he makes this stick. He says he still needs more time to make his economic program work. And he is being given more time.

The reason this President is able to work this political miracle is because he commands immense credibility. And he keeps this public confidence because he doesn't really play politics.

As those who know him best will attest, Reagan believes in what he is doing, believes he will get the results he is promising, and above all believes in himself. This honesty of purpose comes through. And, despite his problems, he maintains his ability to lead.

Reporters find a growing tendency among many voters to want to cast a ballot of confidence for Reagan this fall. This tendency may overcome historical trends and enable both Reagan and the Republican Party to do surprisingly well in the upcoming elections.

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