Reagan's social agenda
Will President Reagan work as vigorously for the moral and social as for the economic issues on which he was elected? The latter have dominated his domestic agenda so far. The first major test on the former is coming now that the Senate is finally set to debate and vote on new antiabortion measures.
Proponents are concerned about reported advice to Mr. Reagan that abortion and such other social issues as school prayer are no-win propositions; that it is important to repeat his views on them to his constituency; but that it would not be helpful to him to take action on them. The radical ''new right'' advocates of such measures are a little like the radical economic supply-siders who worry that he is abandoning Reaganomics for more conventional Republicanism.
But the constituency for one or another of the current issues reaches beyond the new right. Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips estimates that ''social- and religious-issue'' voters may well have provided 5 to 6 percentage points in Reagan's 10-point election margin in 1980. A continuing impulse for political participation in keeping with religious beliefs was dramatized at the recent Family Forum in Washington, a three-day conference under such conservative auspices as the Moral Majority Foundation.
Mr. Reagan spoke to the concerns of such Americans last week when he won applause from a Knights of Columbus audience for a ringing support of school prayer, tuition tax credits for parents of students in private schools, and the antiabortion measures before the Senate. They will be waiting to see whether he follows through and fights to turn defeat into victory as he did for his budget.
For at least one of the measures will have particularly tough going. It is a proposed constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses. It would seek to circumvent the 1973 Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion by giving both the states and the federal government the power to curb or prohibit abortions. State laws would take precedence when more restrictive than national laws.
Other measures before the Senate would define life as beginning at conception , thus identifying abortion as murder; and eliminate any vestige of direct or indirect federal funding for abortion (unless the mother's life is in danger), including abortion research.
Fundamentally, these are not matters for Mr. Reagan to oppose or support on the basis of percentage points of political calculation. Like the school prayer and tuition credits issues, they raise profound questions of constitutionality, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary.
When it comes to an antiabortion amendment, for example, the present proposal on federal and state authority blurs the issue, inviting unending litigation. A clearer vote would be one on the often suggested amendment for an outright abortion ban. This would offer a precise means of eliciting the public's prevailing sentiment on the subject.
Indeed, the whole social agenda demands a national debate rather than simply a congressional debate. These issues are too important to be left to one or another advocacy group. They require the most sensitive accommodation between individual conviction, constitutional law, and governmental intervention. They need a consensus that will last beyond any next election.