Mr. Reagan's Asian tour itinerary - whatever its foreign policy and security nuances - isn't his biggest decision this fall. Should and will he run in l984 are the larger questions. And he must answer them quickly. Republicans urgently need to ready an alternative candidate, should he decide against a second term.
The American political system requires an even, effective marshaling of both party's forces. GOP contenders would require time to make themselves known.
Further, the course of leadership among the Western democracies would be affected. A decision not to run would certainly lead to a pressing, by America's allies, for their interests in the battle for succession. He would have to affirm promptly the bipartisan basis of his arms negotiating approach.
We see little sign the White House is yet undertaking a thorough discussion of what a second term would require. Most of the White House's energy seems directed toward enhancing the President's political position at the moment, instead of soberly assessing the challenge of four more years.
Conventional wisdom says Mr. Reagan will run. The KAL Flight 7 incident helped him hold the public stage since summer's end. The Asian trip was intended to show him in a presidential vein. After that, in mid-November, he could announce.
His sometime conservative supporters have begun to question whether Mr. Reagan should run again. They argue his domestic program is in place, they aren't happy with his new-found pragmatism in foreign affairs, he faces a potential Democratic majority in both Capitol Hill chambers, and a successor could carry on the GOP and conservative causes.
Party professionals counter he's the only Republican leader at the moment that can keep the moderate/conservative tensions from tearing into open conflict. They wish he had announced for reelection in the summer, citing 150 potential candidates for Congress now waiting to see which way he will go. They acknowledge he might find a second term ill-fitting. His second term in California turned into an ordeal of compromise. That Mr. Reagan hasn't decided, or isn't signaling that he has, suggests for him it's a tough call, or one he wants to review until the last moment.
Politically, Mr. Reagan's in good shape for a president in his third year, typically a down-time for presidents. That Democrats aren't enamored of him, while Republicans are, isn't surprising. More notable is his strength among independents, where the competition will fall.
What issues would dominate a second Reagan term?
Obviously, there will be the general state of the economy, public perception of US standing in the world, and the status of world peace. More specifically, education will command its unique dual appeal to voter self-interest and national interest. How to achieve a mutual verifiable arms treaty - not necessarily having one in place - will again pitch a debate between bargaining from strength versus a more open-armed approach. And whether the American dream will be more inclusive or less inclusive - as viewed by blacks, hispanics, women , and other groups - will figure large in any campaign.
The President's reelection decision should hang more on whether he feels suited to the next round of political challenge than on whether he can rest with the past. It's one President Reagan must make alone. And it's one that should be made soon.