Laxalt says appointee ethics, deficits may muddy Reagan's reelection path
Washington — The Reagan administration is not ''any more ethical or any less ethical than any other,'' said Republican Party general chairman Paul Laxalt, responding to the steady stream of reports about misconduct by presidential appointees.
''The fact is that you bring a lot of people into Washington from the outside who are unfamiliar with politics and political discipline and rules, and many of them tend to make mistakes,'' the Nevada senator told a panel of reporters this week in an interview at the Republican National Committee headquarters.
He also maintained that while the Reagan team was once ''a little afraid'' of a challenge from Democratic candidate Gary Hart of Colorado, the mood has shifted. ''The more I've observed the Hart phenomenon, the less concern I have about it,'' said Senator Laxalt. He now sees traditional Democrats who are unified around Walter F. Mondale as the bigger threat.
A close Reagan friend and his campaign chairman, Laxalt painted a bright picture for the President's reelection. The Democrats' thrusts have so far missed their target, he said, dismissing a Democratic Party television advertisement picturing Reagan appointees who have been investigated for wrongdoing.
''That's comforting to us because it means they don't have any substantive issues,'' the senator said. The Democrats would be flaying Reaganomics if the economy were weak, and ''You can be sure that if we were still in Lebanon and still experiencing casualties that that would be an issue,'' he added.
''I don't want to downgrade for a moment the ethical considerations,'' Laxalt said. ''When you look at the so-called laundry list that's depicted on the ads, those are all essentially good people.''
The Democratic ad features eight Reagan appointees, ranging from Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III, whose financial dealings have led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, to Rita Lavelle, a former assistant chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who was convicted of perjury. Others have been involved in possible use of inside information for stock trading, accepting gifts from a foreign country, and clandestine taping of telephone conversations.
A Democratic strategist conceded the party is having trouble making the ''sleaze'' charges stick to the ''Teflon-coated'' President Reagan, although President Jimmy Carter suffered damage when similar accusations were brought against Carter's close aide Bert Lance.
The one case that could be politically damaging, Laxalt conceded, is the investigation of Mr. Meese, who is among the President's most trusted aides. It ''depends on circumstances and timing,'' said Laxalt, who greatly prefers a speedy inquiry that relies chiefly on existing congressional testimony.
The major strengths of the Reagan candidacy, said Laxalt, are the economic upturn and the improvement in US military posture. ''But beyond all that, the strongest attributes that we have going for this presidency is the man himself. He's injected trust and confidence, stability, consistency in the position of the president.''
The biggest Reagan liability, he added, is a ''perception established successfully by our opponents that this administration has not been fair in the social areas and has not been fair to older people.''
Laxalt listed as the top governmental problem today the growing national debt , but he maintained that President Reagan should not be held accountable for federal red ink, although the last three years have seen the most rapid increase in history.
President Reagan ''inherited about 90 percent of the problem,'' Laxalt said. ''The problem that we have in connection with the debt is largely structural.'' He also noted that Congress failed to enact all of the Reagan spending cuts.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, has just released a study contradicting the ''inherited'' deficit theory. The study shows that Reagan tax cuts are the biggest contributor to the deficits, and that Reagan policies will add $239 billion more in red ink from fiscal '82 through '85 than would policies in effect when he came to the White House.
Looking ahead to the fall election, Laxalt saw a solid Reagan Sunbelt. But he perceived problems for the GOP because labor has returned to the Democratic fold and because he sees the Democrats more unified and motivated than in the last 16 years, especially in the industrial states.
A big boost in black voter turnout inspired by candidate Jesse L. Jackson will not help the GOP, Laxalt said. But he predicted his party's own registration efforts would net 3 million new GOP voters.
Laxalt's big concern about the November election is ''that our people are overconfident, (thinking) that this is going to be some kind of political cakewalk.''
But the assumption of the campaign chief is ''that this is going to be a very difficult race.''