When Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1967, he apparently had no idea of how to get along with the Legislature, which was controlled by Democrats. But he learned: Aloofness and bumbling gave way to communication and accommodation. At the same time, he learned how to go over the lawmakers' heads to the public.
As President, Mr. Reagan is applying what he learned as governor. In the current drive to get the version of the fiscal 1982 budget that he wants through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, he is doing a textbook job of wooing the Democrats he needs to win. And he has wasted no time in going straight to the electorate for backup support on Capitol Hill.
The battle of the budget is far from over, but the situation thus far is well summed up by moderate Republican Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. of New York: "By taking a very strong, very conservative, and very uncompromising position, he has already got his opposition to agree to concessions far from their normal liberalism.
"He wanted $50 billion in tax cuts; they have already agreed to $35 billion. He wanted $50 billion in expenditure cuts; they have already agreed to $40 billion. Less than a year ago their leader wanted neither."
When Reagan took office little more than three months ago, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts gently and somewhat condescendingly lectured the new President about being "in the big leagues now."
A few days ago, the markedly deflated veteran Democrat conceded that "the will of the people is to go along with the President."
Still, the new President has not beaten his Democratic opponents into the ground with his continuing personal popularity or public support for his general economic package. Since more than twice as many Americans think he is doing a good or excellent job as think the same for Congress (according to the latest Associated Press/NBC News poll), he doesn't really have to.
Instead, he has used the traditional political means of friendly persuasion: visiting legislators on their home turf up Pennsylvania Avenue, meeting them individually and in small groups at the White House, calling them in their home districts during congressional recess.
This latter tactic apparently was put to particularly good use over the Easter break when the President personally called many of the 44 Democratic conservatives in the House. After that recess it seemed that the three dissident Senate Republicans also had rejoined the Reagan fold to support the President's budget and tax package.
"We are much stronger with the Congress coming back in than we were before they left," Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan told reporters last week.
President Reagan also has been able to capitalize on the increasing fragmentation of Democrats who no longer march in lock step to their leaders' commands.
All of this by no means assures full congressional capitulation to the presidential will, however. Lawmakers still could pick apart major chunks of the President's budget and tax package, particularly if in later months the economy does not improve and supply-side economics become more generally suspect.
The President has lost some Capitol Hill rounds that are significant, if less flashy than the budget battle. The House is refusing to repeal the so-called Clark Amendment, which restricts aid to pro-Western forces in Angola. Senate and House agriculture committees last week refused to cut dairy price supports as the White House had wanted.
Even many of Reagan's staunchest Republican supporters in Congress oppose the administration's proposal to sell sophisticated radar plans and advanced fighter equipment to Saudi Arabia.
Reagan had to learn to accept defeat as well as to compromise when he was governor of California. No one expects him to get his way on everything as President. In fact, there is widespread feeling in Congress and on the part of outside observers that Reagan will not get the three-year, 30 percent tax cut his economic program calls for.
Some administration spokesmen insist the President will accept no less than his complete tax-cut plan. But many observers feel that Reagan the realist, the man who as governor learned the art of compromise, in the end will reach an accommodation.