Reagan agenda losing steam? Never! says Buchanan
Washington — PATRICK Buchanan bristles at the suggestion that the Reagan agenda is running out of steam. The White House director of communications quickly opens a drawer and searches for a ``big, long sheet'' spelling out future agenda items. Not finding it, he grabs a White House note pad.
``Let's go over the whole thing,'' he says, and begins scribbling, underlining each notation for emphasis.
``Coming up to 1987 -- first you have two summits coming up in foreign policy and you have the possibility of an arms agreement. . . . Second, you have the situation in Central America. . . . El Salvador right now is approaching what can be called a victory. The big question in this term is what will be the outcome in Nicaragua when Ronald Reagan leaves in 1989.''
The ardently conservative Mr. Buchanan, a speech writer in the Nixon administration and a former columnist, warms to the thought of what the President can still do to foster ``the movement.''
In the federal judiciary, he says, ``the possibility exists that Ronald Reagan can reshape the US Supreme Court into the next century.'' If the President can get two more conservatives on the court, he suggests, ``Roe v. Wade [the decision upholding a woman's right to an abortion] will be overturned, pornography will no longer be considered protected by the First Amendment, you would have decisions on prayer in the public schools, you'd have decisions on quotas, you'd have decisions on court-ordered busing, affirmative action. . . . The whole church-state issue would be decided.''
``In other words, there could be a `counterreformation' launched by a Rehnquist court against the excesses of the Warren court. . . .''
In terms of legislation, Buchanan races on, the White House is looking at the reform of welfare and the whole area of health insurance.
But if the Republicans lose the Senate this fall, Buchanan concedes, this would be a serious setback. ``The window of opportunity on Capitol Hill could narrow to the point where it was almost closed,'' he comments.
There is no hiding the passion of Buchanan's conservative beliefs. He is a fervent advocate. Although his ideological sails are at times trimmed in the highest White House councils, he views the Reagan presidency as the beginning of a new era of conservatism.
``Look where we've come from,'' says Buchanan, harking back to Barry Goldwater and the defeat of 1964. ``Ronald Reagan has given a really quantum jump to the movement. . . . There were things that were said about us before that can never be said again because of Ronald Reagan. . . . We're a presence in the room now. We've been invited in now.''
Life for Pat Buchanan since White House chief of staff Donald Regan appointed him to the job 17 months ago has not always been easy. As director of communications, Buchanan oversees the President's stable of speech writers, relations with the news media outside Washington, and liaison with various constituency groups, who are brought into the White House to hear and disseminate the President's views.
But his undiluted ideological fervor has often created internal clashes with more-pragmatic presidential aides. When the President was preparing for his European trip last year, a speech prepared under Buchanan's direction was criticized by Robert McFarlane, then national-security adviser, as being too confrontational toward the Soviets. The speech was toned down.
The most recent flap arose over the reported firing of speech writer Bently T. Elliott. According to news reports, Buchanan's efforts to keep Mr. Elliott and, later, to give the job to speech writer Peggy Noonan were turned down.
Asked about the dissension and his role at the White House, Buchanan says he's ``pretty satisfied with what I've done'' and ``pleased with things right now.'' ``We've had some bad problems, you read about them,'' he remarks. ``But I don't care to go into the family quarrels. That's all over and been written about to death.''
As for perceptions that the Reagan administration is riven with conflicts and confusing signals on such issues as the SALT II treaty, Buchanan argues that disagreements in the Carter administration were even more profound. ``Carter in the third year just about shot half the Cabinet,'' he retorts.
The conflicts may appear more visible, Buchanan says, because the President prefers a cabinet style of government, unlike the Nixon administration, which had a ``more powerful, centralized White House that dominated,'' with men like John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger controlling policymaking.
``You have a different situation here,'' he says, pointing to the influence of such Cabinet figures as Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, James Baker III, and Edwin Meese III. ``There is no perfect system without flaws . . . and one of the natural flaws of cabinet government is that you'll get a conflict, especially on as important an issue as SALT [strategic arms limitation].''
But now, insists Buchanan, there is a good measure of ``cohesion'' at the White House despite periodic reports of infighting. ``There've been some family fistfights, but they are the exception,'' he says. ``The new team -- the post-1984 team -- is really finally settled in this year . . . and functioning.''
An ardent Roman Catholic, Buchanan has strong views on such social issues as abortion and prayer in public schools. He is also a forceful and outspoken champion of anticommunist ``freedom fighters,'' including the Nicaraguan ``contras''; the President's antimissile defense program, known as ``star wars''; and even more-drastic domestic spending cuts.
Has he made a difference in the second Reagan term?
``Your voice is very often heard,'' he responds. ``We get in on everything. It's hard to think of a single major issue on which you haven't weighed in.''
``You even recommend judges and justices,'' he said with a smile.
Buchanan recalls that when a Supreme Court justice was ill in May he recommended a name -- Antonin Scalia. He was not in on Judge Scalia's recent nomination to the high court, he says, but feels his views went into the decisionmaking process:
``When something like that is done, it's not that you've made any final decision on that, but they know the conservatives, the forces of the right-to-life movement, the forces of the social movement, the Protestant evangelicals. . . . I'm sure they take that into consideration. . . . When you have a Rehnquist and Scalia like that, I think that's a triumph for all my folks. The final cut is obviously made by the President of the United States.''
Buchanan acknowleges that the President often compromises his ideological position in the interest of political pragmatism. If you put down a test of 100 multiple-choice questions on various issues, he says, ``Ronald Reagan and I would come out with an identical score.''
But if Reagan settles for less than the whole conservative agenda, says Buchanan, there are many more ``clear, decisive victories for the movement'' than in the Nixon years. ``Down there it was just an uninterrupted string of losses almost,'' he remarks. ``But here 50 percent of the time the President has decided in the direction that we think he ought to go.''
Buchanan admits to frustrations over the slow pace in achieving conservative goals, such as ending affirmative-action ``quotas'' in federal hiring. But he gives no indication of wanting to leave the White House.
``Here you work in a collegial situation, you have to persuade people, things are not done in a couple of minutes,'' he says. ``It can be a very frustrating experience and it calls for measures of patience and perseverance, which were never my strong suits.''
But for all the internal strains, he would not go the ``I-will-resign'' route, he indicates: ``You tell yourself, you can always walk out of here but you can't walk back in, and very, very, very few people have an opportunity to serve in the White House and serve any president this close. . . .''
Will 1989 see a swing away from conservatism?
Such an idea is heretical to the combative spokesman for the conservative cause.
``The future belongs to conservatives,'' he says.
``They are younger, they are more energetic, they dominate the party caucuses, they dominate the nominating process. They are committed to ideas, not simply personal aggrandizement or title. . . . They are in constant communication with one another and they believe themselves to be part of a movement.''