The news these days is full of a contest going on between the Reagan White House and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives over the extent of a possible tax cut for the American people, and whether it should be for one, two, or three years. It sounds chaotic and it raises the conventional questions about whether the American system of government is workable.
Well, can you think of a time in American history in this century which in retrospect was more pleasant, relaxed, prosperous, and generally satisfactory than the years of the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower?
At the time there were complaints. He was called a "do-nothing President." He was in fact a President who valued stability and continuity above change. He did not seek maximum change, but the result was economic stability, a sound and steady dollar, general well-being, a gradual quieting of civil tensions between races and classes -- and no war.
The first thing President Eisenhower did on taking office was to end the Korean war. From then on he vetoed all proposals from the Pentagon which could have involved the United States in another war. When the French were about to lose Indochina at Dien Bien Phu the Pentagon proposed using nuclear weapons to rescue the French Amry. "Ike" just said "no." That was the end of the matter.
There was a dust-up over Matsu and Quemoy, two offshore Chinese islands held by the Nationalists.Ike handled it without further difficulty. The Chinese Nationalists kept Matsu and Quemoy, but the US evacuated another chain of offshore islands, the Tachens. The two seemed to balance each other. There has been no real trouble since over those Chinese islands.
Time and time again during those years there were economic alarums with suggestions for the government taking drastic action to head off recession and unemployment. Ike vetoed most of them.
It was a period of relative tranquillity and relative stability. It looks good in retrospect. There was no inflation. The dollar was worth just as much at the end of Ike's eight years as at the beginning. there was some unemployment. There always is. But not enough to be politically or economically sinificant.
Now, please note, that during only two of those eight years did the President's party control the Congress.
The 1952 election was a mild Republican landslide. Ike himself won big. But his party won Congress only by a narrow margin. And it lost that margin two years later in the 1954 midterm elections. From January of 1955 till Ike handed over the presidency to John F. Kennedy in January of 1961, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. For six years a Republican President had to negotiate the affairs of government with the opposition party.
Of course Ike had an unusual advantage which Ronald Reagan does not enjoy to the same extent. As the war hero of World War II he had a stature, presence, and influence with the country and with the opposition in Congress which no one else really has had since George Washington. And actually, Eisenhower's second term was more successful than Washington's second.
Mr. Reagan is good at managing the Congress. His benign manner and his non- confrontational style disarm the political opposition just as Ike's good and friendly nature did. Mr. Reagan is probably as skilled with Congress as a man can well be without having that extra Eisenhower advantage of being a bona fide folk hero.
So, is it to be lamented that the pending tax cuts will have to be hammered out in a compromise between the Republican President and a Democratic House of Representatives?
My personal guess is that Mr. Reagan's presidency will be more successful because he must compromise on many things with a Democratic leadership in the House. I think he knows this and is himself content with the condition.
If the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress the right wing of the party would have immensely more influence than it does today.Mr. Reagan would have a difficult time curbing their more extravagant inclinations in such matters as civil rights, protection of the individual and of the environment, school prayers, strip mining, offshore oil drilling, abortion and all the other things so dear to them.
Without the restraining fact of an opposition in control of the House, the Reagan administration could well turn into a counterrevolution so extreme and so radical that it could not possibly survive the next election.
Thanks to the Democrats controlling the House the Reagan counterrevolution is bound to be moderate, gradual, and selective. Such a restrained counterrevolution could last for four years, and possibly even longer.
A division of power in Washington is not always a bad thing and in th is case is probably a boon to Mr. Reagan.