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Coach Reagan's endgame

By JOSEPH C. HARSCH / November 10, 1987



IN football it's all over when the final whistle blows. In politics the end of one game sets up the problems for the next.

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Ronald Reagan is now recasting his team for the final 14 months of his presidency. What he does is enormously important to his successor.

For example, he is expecting to sign a treaty with the Soviets to ban intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. If he does, and goes on from there to negotiate a reduction in long-range, intercontinental nuclear weapons, life is going to be very much easier for his successor.

It has taken Mr. Reagan seven years to get ready for the signing of an arms accord. He had to prepare for it both by building up the American arsenal for bargaining leverage and also by dragging his own ultra-right-wing supporters along with him.

All of that preliminary work was like Richard Nixon getting ready to open American relations with mainland China. Once Mr. Nixon had gone to Peking, it became possible for Jimmy Carter to build up the new relationships.

It is doubtful that Mr. Carter could have managed to bridge the gap between Washington and Peking had Nixon not cleared the way. It took a hard-line, ultra anticommunist to dare to do it.

In the matter of arms reductions, the first step is the hardest. Most of Reagan's hard-line supporters oppose the idea of signing any treaties of any kind with the Russians. They have resisted Reagan's approach to Mikhail Gorbachev at every step of the way. If he were to leave the White House without signing any treaty with the Russians, his successor might never be able to pick up the process and get it going again.

But if Reagan, as certified an anticommunist as ever Richard Nixon was in the past, clears the way with the arms treaty, then his successor can pick up from there and aim for a more comprehensive reduction in weaponry.

Now apply the same line of reasoning to the American economy. Almost everyone agrees that if the American economy is to be given a safe and solid foundation, it is important to move toward reducing the federal deficit. Almost everyone also agrees that to do so will require some increase in federal revenue, which of course means higher taxes in some form or another, probably to be called ``revenue enhancement'' so as to avoid the word taxes.

But the last thing any congressman wants to vote for is higher taxes.

If Reagan, who took office vowing to reduce taxes (which he did) and declaring that he will never raise them - were to agree to a raise - then also life would be made easier for his successor, of either party.

What Reagan does both in the matter of arms reduction and higher taxes is a protection for his successor. His Republicans would find it harder to attack the successor if the successor were merely carrying forward a program or plan of action that Reagan had initiated.

One wonders whether the Russians understood the above when they switched signals again a week or so ago and agreed to set a specific time for Mr. Gorbachev to make his long-delayed trip to Washington.

It seems to be a fair conclusion from known fact that the men in the Kremlin truly do now want easier relations with the United States (if only to serve their immediate, short-term purposes), and also want a start on arms limitation (if only because the pace of the arms race is getting too hot for them).

It is possible that the next president of the US may favor such agreements, but getting them will be very much harder if Reagan has not cleared the way. This will be particularly true if the next president is a Democrat.

So it is a prudent precaution on the part of the Soviets to do business on arms control right now with Ronald Reagan. If they had not done it now, they might have had to wait a long time for another chance.