Political reflections

When starting out on a midwinter holiday as I am doing immediately after writing the following, I tend to think in broad and perhaps too sweeping terms about things political. This is written partly so that when I come back from a visit to the sunny beaches of the Caribbean I can look at it and consider whether it still makes sense.

President Ronald Reagan is in obvious political difficulty. Why? Try out the following for size.

For most of his active life from the time he reached Hollywood until he came to Washington Ronald Reagan associated largely with people who hated taxes, feared communism, and knew nothing about unemployment.

He campaigned for policies which would reduce taxes, and make verbal and economic war on the presumed source of communism, the Soviet Union. He ignored unemployment or the possibility that it might increase. He laughed at John Anderson's idea that cutting taxes and increasing military spending would lead to a rising federal deficit.

He sounded so sincere in his belief that the United States could have more guns, lower taxes, and a balanced budget all at the same time that a majority of the American people believed him. His confidence was reassuring and contagious. How could anyone doubt a man who spoke with such happy conviction?

And so Ronald Reagan came to Washington and cut taxes and opened the treasury to the Pentagon. But then what happened? Unemployment started to creep up, and so did the deficit.

But Mr. Reagan is still insisting that the country can have guns and lower taxes at the same time.

He is making a few grudging concessions to his critics. But by and large he is still clinging to the happy assumptions of the campaign. He is still trying to serve and please those who hate taxes, fear communism, and know nothing about unemployment.

But President Reagan is living in a country in which a majority of the people have different concerns than those uppermost among those people Mr. Reagan associated with in California before he came to Washington.

Most Americans of today fear unemployment, hate the thought of war of any kind, particularly nuclear, and regard the Soviet Union as something a long way away and of no real relevance to their lives.

Many a president in the past has adjusted to changed public concerns and perceptions. Mr. Reagan gives every appearance of being unaware of the fact that the set of values he brought with him to Washington no longer fits the public sense of its needs of the moment.

It is almost as though Mr. Reagan brought all his old beliefs and his old perceptions to Washington, filled the White House with them, and is happily unaware that times have changed and that he is in fact out of step with the rank and file of the American people.

Can it be that life in the White House, among associates of one's own choosing, is so insulated from the mass of the American people that a man on the inside of that big house really does not sense and is not responsive to the moods and concerns of the great majority of the people outside?

Perhaps the greatest strength of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was that no matter how handicapped physically he never lost touch with ordinary people. Partly this was because he actually did use his wife Eleanor as his ''legs and ears.'' Partly also it was because he associated with a broad spectrum of people. He was a social snob but a political commoner.

Woodrow Wilson lost touch, largely because of his preoccupation with the peace process after the war was over and then because of physical illness. Richard Nixon lost touch, and came to grief. Had he appreciated the political importance of ending the Vietnam war promptly (as Eisenhower ended the Korean war) he would certainly have avoided Watergate and probably completed his second term happily and successfully.

Mr. Reagan is certainly out of touch with the prime fear of unemployment which stalks the land today.

The greater question is whether he could adjust his thinking to the popular mood even if he did understand it. He still seems to be trying to govern for the benefit of those who hate taxes, fear Russia, and are ignorant of unemployment.

Unless Mr. Reagan adjusts to the prevailing mood and changes his sense of priorities it would seem likely that he is headed back for the ranch come January of 1985.

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