President's Central America speech: a political dud?

The wisdom of President Reagan's address to Congress on Central America - as political strategy and as a way of influencing legislative action - was quickly called into question here.

Mr. Reagan risked a rebuff from Congress that would underscore the recent pattern of weakening presidential clout on Capitol Hill, worried Republicans said.

He risked accelerating the pace of confrontation between the two parties.Judging by Democratic reaction to the President's speech, the 1984 election is already fast becoming the driving force in Washington deliberations.

He risked focusing on a region considered peripheral to most Americans' interests, as opposed to a political strategy of recouping support among blue-collar, Hispanic, and women voters, to whom the United States economy remains paramount, GOP strategists said.

In his speech to Congress Wednesday night, Reagan sought to allay fears that a buildup of military and economic aid for Central America could be a prelude to a subtle Vietnam-style escalation that could eventually draw in American troops.

He tried to rally Congress and the public to a heightened sense of urgency about the region. ''The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America,'' he said. ''If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be put at jeopardy.''

But there was little evidence anyone in Congress was persuaded to change his view on Central America. And only time will tell whether Americans generally were roused to give the region higher priority. Recent surveys found that only 1 in 10 Americans favor increased military aid to El Salvador and only 1 in 5 approve greater economic aid.

''Frankly, he did not say anything new,'' said Rep. Robert Garcia (D) of New York, chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus. ''He's really only talking about $ 30 million more in aid.'' The balance of power in Washington has swung to those who would prefer negotiation to increased military involvement, Mr. Garcia said. ''The problem in Central America is when you go from an oligarchy to a democracy , it's going to take time. It's going to be a long, drawn-out process.''

This was a tepid response compared with the official Democratic rebuttal from Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. He called Reagan's Central American policy ''a formula for failure.''

As presidential strategy, Reagan's Central America speech is part of a series of White House initiatives designed to put the President ''out front.'' The first phase was his spate of speeches and initiatives on arms control. This week , Central America was the focus. At the end of May, Mr. Reagan will host the Williamsburg, Va., summit meeting of leading Western economic powers.

In all cases, Mr. Reagan's personal popularity and speaking skills are being exploited. He is also prominent at almost daily Rose Garden or Oval Office sessions - signing social-security legislation, recognizing victims of violent crime. The President is almost incessantly visible.

This visibility is taken by many observers as a sign he intends to run again. His approval rating with voters is rising somewhat as the economy improves, so he is personally the strongest card the administration has to play, they reason.

But others are beginning to think the heavy exposure and risk-taking could be a way to find out just how much clout the President has, to see how much can be done as quickly as possible, in case he decides not to compete again in 1984.

The Central American address to Congress is more consistent with a ''not-run strategy,'' one leading GOP presidential strategist says. ''We're into an exercise of probing what it would mean if you 'let Reagan be Reagan.' ''

There's another reason Reagan now has assumed the burden of publicly defending his programs, aides say. It's to show he's personally in charge of his administration, amid reports of conflicts between an old-guard California clique who favor hard-line, fundamentalist Reagan positions, and pragmatists on the White House staff who prefer risking less of the President's political capital.

''Our political task - if not our governing task - is to build some semblance of a coalition for 1984,'' says one Reagan political strategist. ''Central America is absolutely the wrong thing to emphasize with the public. People in this country could care less about Central America. A majority oppose the President's position. He courts political disaster in pursuing it.''

Blue-collar workers, Hispanics, and women should be the focus of White House policy if Reagan wants to run again, some backers say.

''The traditional women's issues are peace, fairness, and economic well-being ,'' a GOP strategist says. ''They are what separate Reagan from women more than his Equal Rights Amendment or pro-choice (abortion) stands.

''Reagan can't win in '84 if blue-collar voters are as solidly Democratic as they were in 1982. Reagan carried some 40 to 41 percent of blue-collar workers in 1980. We must get back to 30 to 35 percent.

''The Hispanic community in Chicago voted for Washington, a black, despite the interests of the black and Hispanic community being far apart. It was an anti-Republican vote. We need to get back 20 to 25 percent of the Hispanic vote, which was where we were back in 1980.''

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