Ronald Reagan heritage: greatness or not?

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THE current vacations of President Reagan and Congress afford an opportune moment to assess the accomplishments of the Reagan administration to date, the outlook for the future, and what legacy it may eventually leave us. When Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980, the American people had undergone a long span of discouraging years: Vietnam, Watergate, a huge oil price rise badly damaging the economy, high inflation, and a discouraging Carter presidency.

It was with relief and enthusiasm that the American people elected the optimistic, exuberant, and confident Mr. Reagan, who promised to restore American greatness. Specifically he pledged to reestablish American military strength, reduce taxes, balance the budget, and end government's increasing and very costly bureaucratic interference in everyone's daily life.

Now, more than halfway through Reagan's presidency, let us see how he has fulfilled his undertakings, and where the country will be headed at the end of his term.

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First, it must be said that the American people owe Reagan a debt of gratitude -- gratitude for having ended the despondency of the preceding decade and restored the nation's self-confidence, and for having begun to rebuild America's dangerously eroded military strength essential to the preservation of peace in a divided and dangerous world.

An even greater debt is owed him for having reversed the tide of increasing government activism and interference in our daily life resulting from the ``tax, tax, tax -- spend, spend, spend'' welfare state philosophy that motivated the Democratic-controlled Congresses of the past two decades and started our country down the slippery slope of deficit spending. Also to his credit, Reagan reduced runaway inflation to the lowest level in many years.

These are very substantial accomplishments, but are they enough to win Ronald Reagan a lasting place in history as a great President? Unfortunately the answer is no, not yet.

Why? Because his achievements to date have failed badly in one most critical respect -- to keep his pledge to move toward a balanced budget, imperative to future economic health.

While tax cuts and heavy military spending have helped the economy, his ``supply side'' economic theory has proved a devastating and costly illusion. As a result, in Reagan's first term the national debt doubled, from roughly $900 billion to $1.8 trillion, adding tens of billions of dollars of uncuttable interest costs to future annual budgets.

Worse still, if the deficit problem is not effectively dealt with in the Reagan years, the deficit could balloon to $3 trillion by the early 1990s. Now every American household knows that one cannot indefinitely spend more than one takes in without devastating consequences. Yet if not reversed, that is the direction in which the nation is headed, passing on to future generations intolerable and unmanageable debt burdens.

So where are we now and what can be done to avoid such a calamity?

The Congress has just passed the 1986 budget, characterized by some leading members as ``only just better than nothing.'' The Office of Management and Budget is reportedly even more pessimistic, projecting deficits of more than $200 billion for the next two years because of over-optimistic economic assumptions in the original projections and increased congressional spending, such as for farmers, in pending legislation.

Who is responsible? The fault must be shared by Congress and the White House.

The Congress, because its members, with reelection in 1986 a primary goal, are unwilling to offend important groups of voters, such as the elderly drawing social security and federal and military retirees, despite the bitter truth which congressmen dare not utter -- that if such groups do not accept some restraints now on what they receive, later they will have to accept infinitely worse restraints.

The White House, which bears equal responsibility. Instead of making deficit reduction the primary goal of his second term, President Reagan muddied the political waters by introducing and stressing ``tax reform'' as the important objective.

While a revenue-neutral tax reform is desirable, it is not essential at this critical time, and Reagan's tax-reform proposals would have actually increased the deficit. Furthermore, when the Republican Senate with considerable political courage proposed not to reduce but only to limit the increase in social security benefits, which would have been a major step in reducing the deficit, Reagan pulled the rug from under it, even though he had earlier agreed to it.

In sum, the main fault of the White House is lack of effective leadership by the President. Is it too late to avert the looming disaster that could hit the country in the early 1990s?

No, but the time is short, and it will require strong leadership by the White House. If more is not done this year, it will be increasingly difficult in the remaining three years of the Reagan presidency. Next year is an important election year, when members of Congress are understandably reluctant to make unpopular decisions. It will be equally difficult in 1987 and '88, because with Ronald Reagan a lame duck, congressional leaders of both parties will be positioning themselves for the nominations for president and vice-president and the elections that follow. They will be hesitant to support tough but necessary measures.

So what is the answer?

As things now stand, only strong and courageous leadership by President Reagan can hope to resolve the dangerous budget-deficit impasse. To give such leadership, Ronald Reagan will have to demonstrate that he has the political courage to modify some of his own previous commitments and ideological positions that have clearly failed to produce favorable budget results. He has a wellspring of goodwill and popularity with the American people. He should be willing to lay that on the line in the interest of t he country and the future of the American people to whom he is responsible.

If he does so, his administration could go down in history as a triumph. If he does not, it could go into the history books as a missed opportunity and tragedy.

Douglas MacArthur II, a consultant and lecturer on international affairs, is a retired career ambassador who served under six Presidents.

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