It's Reagan's ball game now -- to win or lose
President Reagan's convincing win for his budget-cutting plan radically alters the basic political question from "Can it pass?" to "Will it work?" It also quickly turns attention to the revenue portion of the Reagan program -- a tax-slashing measure that has raised concerns among conservative lawmakers.
With the 253 to 176 vote, the Democrats have apparently yielded effective control of the House on budget matters. Conservative Democrats, particularly the "Boll Weevils" (Sunbelt Democrats), asserted themselves as the swing force in joining the Republicans to pass the Gramm-Latta bill, a so-called "compromise" measure that Mr. Reagan soundly endorsed.
The President's three-year 10 percent-a-year tax package, still in doubt, now has a better chance of passage --and in a form close to what Mr. Reagan wants.
The White House is not yet predicting victory on the tax bill. But the budget win "greatly adds to the prospects the President will get what he wants," an administration spokesman says.
"The President is standing firm, not talking compromise," the White House spokesman said. "There have been some Democrats who have indicated a desire to try to work out something with the President. The door's open. If they want to talk, we're willing to listen. There's continuing movement to the President's position."
Politically, Reagan's budget triumph puts his label on the program. Both sides acknowledge this. If it succeeds a year hence in holding down inflation, the rewards will be the Republicans'. If hopes are disappointed, the responsibility will be the GOP's, too.
As a result, the White House and Republican leadership have already begun to lower public expectations of early or dramatic success.
"Politically, the Democrats find themselves in the best position we could be in," says Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland. "We can't be accused of being obstructionist, because we didn't obstruct. But next fall , when the public realizes the cuts sank into the heart and meat, not just waste and fraud, of government programs, the outcry won't be against us. We'll remind the people we did stand up."
"The worst thing would have been for us to win, for the President to get only 80 percent of what he wanted," Congressman Barnes says of the Democrats' rationale. "Then when his program fails -- as we think it will -- they would have blamed us."
The link between continued Reagan-Republican popularity and the need to show progress next year against inflation is also stressed by neutral political observers. "If the President's complex economic program for curbing inflation does not live up to the public's expectations, his overall performance rating could suffer regardless of his perceived competence in other areas," says pollster George Gallup. Inflation has more than twice the impact of any other issue --including unemployment and Soviet relations --formance, according to the latest Gallup study.
To minimize their burden next year, the Republicans are saying they must show only slight gains against inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment -- a change in economic direction. They intend to bring out President Reagan himself in next year's campaign to help finish the job of adding outright control of the House to their control of the Senate.
Thus, the basic lines of the next political cycle have apparently been drawn.
The Democrats concede they have arrived at their position by default. But they argue it will give them time to concentrate on the party rebuilding effort they desperately need.
"Victory on the budget puts the President clearly on the mark that he must succeed," says Democratic strategist Peter D. Hart. "Because it's hism program now. He got his program through.
"It's just as you could say Lyndon Johnson would have to pay the price in terms of the Great Society," Mr. Hart says. "We always talk in terms of Johnson and Vietnam. But leaving Vietnam aside, if Lyndon Johnson had to run in 1968 off of the urban unrest, I think he would have a hard time defending a lot of Great Society programs.
"If there's economic unrest next year, I suspect that this President would pay a price."
The economic assumptions behind the President's program could also start to undermine confidence, Democrat Hart says.
"Reagan budget assumptions are based on the idea of lower interest rates, lower CPI [consumer price index], lower unemployment than others expect. They're going to have to adjust those. When they start making those adjustments , it will be a sign to the American people: 'Folks, it's not working.'"
The Reagan strategy is to focus attention on the broad outlines of the program, on setting their budget cuts, tax cuts, and regulatory reforms in place. Simplicity is on their side, they say.
Hart for the Democrats contends that concentrating on passing bills, but not on setting measurable results, led to the public's conviction that President Carter was ineffective.
"Reagan's programs on the economy are like Carter's on energy," Hart says. "Both set worthwhile and important goals. Carter's program failed in part because he didn't provide any targets, markers, or buoys for the American people so they could measure progress and effectiveness. I see Reagan running the same risks."
But the administration wants to avoid setting anything like quarterly or semi-annual targets for results. If results come slowly, they hope to blame it on the years of Democratic congressional leadership that must be undone.
For the moment, the Republican leaders are basking in their budget victory glow. They see the assassination attempt on the President's life giving them a three- or four-month extension of the legislative honeymoon any president usually gets. Some believe Reagan's personal honeymoon, his freedom from direct partisan attack, could last to the end of his first term. With their early fast start, they think they can get the rest of their program into place before the political burden of showing results sets in.
Three '82 budget prop osals Carter Reagan Gramm-Latta Outlays $739.3 billion $695.3 billion $689.0 billion