The Stockman saga

IF David Stockman leaves government soon to take a lucrative job in the private sector, no one is going to be surprised. Mr. Stockman insists he has no such plans. But the fact is that this stellar salesman of the intricacies and, sometimes, the mysteries of the Reagan budget will be through with his work, for the most part, in the very near future. When Stockman leaves he will depart without having ever relinquished the role he very early assumed: as the President's No. 1 enigma among those who populate Mr. Reagan's inner circle.

Stockman encouraged this public puzzlement about himself and his views when he disclosed to a reporter, very early on in this administration, that he had some doubts about Reaganomics. On hearing this the President was not at all amused, meeting with Stockman and ``taking him to the woodshed.'' Reagan stopped short of firing Stockman, despite urgings for such an ouster by some top Reagan associates.

For some time after this incident the speculation persisted: Would Stockman stick it out? Obviously, he did stay around, assuming a less-visible role, working diligently, and, apparently, getting back into the President's good graces.

Recently Mr. Stockman has been advocating belt-tightening, for farmers, military people, and students, in terms that stirred up a widespread, angry response. Again the President was less than amused. As he said in his recent press conference, he had called Stockman in and told him to ``cool it.''

But Stockman himself was issuing no apologies, except for conceding that his ``rhetoric'' in making his points about the need to roll back some popular spending programs may have been somewhat harsh. And, he said, ``a lot of people'' had talked to him reprovingly about some of his remarks. Even his mother had thought David a bit insensitive in his view of how farmers would have to learn to survive -- or not to survive -- in a world of fewer subsidies.

``What I was trying to do,'' he told reporters the other morning, ``was to tone up the environment.'' He said that actually everything he was saying -- all the sacrifices he was calling for -- ``are right in the Reagan budget.'' He was using these tough words, he said, to awaken people to what was going to be required of them in a real world where the budget deficit had to be reduced.

The Stockman phrase about toning up the environment is fascinating. It discloses a side of this highly intelligent political servant that must not be overlooked. He is a man who sees all the nuances of proposals he is advocating -- and all their implications, even their weaknesses. Beyond that, it is his way to be candid. Thus, if certain Reagan proposals are going to hurt -- well, he isn't about to hide it. ``Why advertise it?'' his critics within the administration are saying, in effect. ``Why not?'' is the Stockman answer.

But this time Stockman really isn't in any real trouble with the President. Actually, he is performing quite a service for him. In fact, Reagan defends Stockman's cutting comments, saying his aide had become ``upset'' after being ``harassed'' at committee hearings on the Hill.

Stockman is helping Mr. Reagan get the feel of just how far the President can go with some of these spending cuts -- many of them highly controversial.

Stockman is taking most of the brickbats being hurled at the administration by those who are unhappy over the imminent budget cuts.

Stockman, more than anyone else, is deliberately drawing this fire. In so doing he is diverting the criticism from the man who is the real author of the budget and the one who is really responsible for where the budget's teeth will bite: the President. Mr. Reagan could well be grateful to Stockman for this.

So those who are saying with such certainty that Stockman is once again in the President's doghouse are probably wrong. Stockman is talking with confidence. And he's sounding like a man who is carrying out his boss's wishes. He is clearly saying that he is toning up the environment because that's what the President wants him to do.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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