Reagan, GOP get fresh slate to write foreign, domestic policy

After the first flush of surprise over the Republican presidential and legislative sweeps, Washington sages have begun taking a closer measure of the Reagan-GOP mandate.

What they see is a fresh slate, a clear opportunity handed to the Republicans to set a national agenda and to show results.

They see a tentative, though not a certain dawn of a new political era. Further GOP gains in 1982 and 1984 will have to be earned before reversal of the Democrats realignment in the 1930s can be declared.

President-elect Ronald Reagan will have strong Capitol Hill assets: a Senate majority to back up any bargaining with the Soviet Union and power in both houses to initiate economic policy. He has a clear mandate to cut the rate of government spending, and to finance a more muscular foreign policy, that should enable him to take no-nonsense stands with Congress.

Organizationally, Reagan will have access to "cadres of first-rate middle-echelon" Republican talent, the experts say. The Reagan management style -- a working Cabinet format, with the President a kind of chairman of the board -- should help Reagan set priorities and avoid the Carter team's mistake of flooding Congress with a confusing mass of legislation at the outset.

"Reagan must avoid trying to do too many things at once," says Michael Malbin , a Congress expert with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Still, Mr. Malbin and other AEI scholars stress the need for the Republican to establish a record, or at least make clear the direction in which he is taking the nation to stretch out his mandate long enough to secure the GOP's 1980 electoral gains.

The basic question is whether 1980 is a rerun of 1932, which led to one of the two or three great party realignments in history, or whether it is a rerun of 1952, when the Eisenhower-GOP sweep was followed by a 1954 fizzle when Republicans lost control of Congress, says elections expert Austin Ranney.

"We may be at the beginning of a party realignment as in 1932," Mr. Ranney says. "But it's far too early to tell. Like 1980, 1932 was also an 'anti' election -- antidepression and anti-Herbert Hoover. This was followed by 1934, when for the first time a party didn't lose seats in a midterm election. Nineteen hundred eighty was a massive rejection of Carter as a leader and of liberal Democratic policies that had not been showing results."

Whether the Republicans seize their opportunity and generate a lasting realignment depends on "visible progress" in implementing new policies to cope with inflation at home and weakness abroad. "They need not be solved," Ranney says, "as they weren't in '32 and '34."

"Nineteen hundred thirty-two gave Roosevelt an opportunity, a chance," Malbin observes."He didn't have a program. He created a program. The [Democratic] realignment that had begun earlier with Al Smith became a solid realignment."

The Reagan-GOP 1980 mandate for a stronger foreign policy and more modest government does not extend to social issues, says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion and a Reagan-Bush campaign strategist.

"There is no clear mandate . . . on social issues," Mr. Gergen says. "That's where a Reagan administration will have to be most careful."

And while the mandate to trim the rate of government spending may be clear-cut, there is no mandated consensus on the economic theory -- such as that underlying the Kemp- Roth bill -- that must govern creation of a Reagan legislative program in Congress, Gergen adds.

The Republican lineup of new committee chairmen in the Senate, under the likely leadership of Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, should help Reagan "make a record" in Congress on economic issues, AEI's Malbin says. But Malbin also sees pitfalls in the differences among the chairmen on economic policy details. Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, slated for the finance committee chair, wants to target tax cuts for specific industries, for instance, while other Senate powers do not.

Malbin thinks Reagan's Cabinet style -- which invites the airing of differing views -- will allow disagreements to surface early enough for a clear agenda to emerge from the Senate.

But many members of the Reagan coalition may have to be curbed, Malbin warns. Pushing politically dangerous issues such as a national right-to-work bill through Congress could cost Reagan and Republicans the support of workers needed for a major political realignment.

Energy legislation could prove the first major test of GOP astuteness and clout, Malbin suggests. A Reagan administration may press for earlier deregulation of oil and natural gas. "They can do this by executive order with oil," he says. But there would be "a long and bitter conflict" if the Republicans tried legislatively to speed up action on natural gas.

The Democrats may use their energy oversight edge in the House for leverage against Reagan in 1984, Malbin says.

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