Candidate Howard Baker

FORMER Senate majority leader Howard Baker is already deep in the preparatory stage of running for president. He made that clear in talking to reporters over breakfast the other morning. Also, for the first time he provided strong insights into his positions on the economy and defense, two of the chief issues he would have to deal with as president. Excerpts from this questioning session with Mr. Baker follow: Do you feel for Mr. Dole these days?

I really do. Bob is doing it his way -- as every majority leader does. Every majority leader reinvents the role. He does it in his own image. What I will say is that Bob Dole is doing an extremely fine job. And I think he is doing it under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and at an extraordinarily difficult time.

Is this flawed Reagan-Dole relationship reparable?

My guess is that it will be very difficult to repair. That's based partly on the fact that Bob Dole perhaps forgives -- but I bet he never forgets.

You have deep concerns about the budget deficit?

Very much so. The situation with the budget is really worse than you think. And it's so bad that we really don't have an issue as important on the domestic front.

I think you are going to have to focus carefully, and effectively, on a balanced-budget amendment. There are all sorts of ways to criticize that. But I staunchly support a balanced-budget amendment -- not to outlaw deficits, which is pie in the sky, but to make it at least less convenient for Congress to expand the deficit.

Finally, you are going to have to have more money, more revenue. That's what I mean when I say you are going to have to do everything you know how to do. And that time is going to come soon.

How would you raise the money?

I would not decide that as of the moment. I am sympathetic toward the oil-import fee at the moment, because oil prices are going down and probably going down further. And that is not only an easy way to raise money -- it is also an effective way.

Your thinking on our defense and the defense budget?

I think that the President has just about completed his defense buildup. I think you are going to see big savings in that field in the future. I think SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] is going to go forward. But I think on balance the military portion of the budget is likely to be smaller rather than greater.

I would like to ask the question that is similar to the one that Roger Mudd asked of Senator Kennedy: What do you think you would bring to the presidency if you decide to run?

I can tell you in one sentence why I want to be president. I think that based on my experience and insights and knowledge of government, I know where I want to take the country. And within that statement is embraced a whole variety of programs and ideas which I have not developed to the point that I am going to announce them all today.

Now how do you view things today differently than you did five years ago?

Well I wasn't a Ronald Reagan admirer -- and I became one. I believe the commitment he made to a strong defense should continue. And, without that, I don't believe we would be on the brink of what could be a major agreement with the Soviet Union on arms control.

I do believe that we did the right thing by trying to stimulate the economy. But I have changed my mind about the level of revenue and the effect it would have on the deficit. I think you are going to have to pay the national debt. I didn't think that five years ago.

I also support the Strategic Defense Initiative. Let me tell you why: The whole idea that we are going to protect this country by threatening to incinerate the Soviet Union is repugnant. One of these days we are going to have an accident. It may not be between the US and the Soviet Union. But there will be an accident if we don't get this thing under control. And I don't know what the consequences will be. So the sooner we can get on with the business of trying to stand down offensive weapons systems an d substitute in their place defensive weapon systems, the better off civilization will be.

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

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