President's policies stalling on Capitol Hill. Uproar over Reagan's trip could slow his agenda on Capitol Hill
Washington — The White House now has two major concerns as the uproar grows louder over President Reagan's visit on May 5 to a West German military cemetery. Insiders are worried that very quickly the President's prime political agenda -- cutting the budget deficit and supporting aid to Nicaraguan rebels -- will be damaged on Capitol Hill.
There is also concern that over the long term, Mr. Reagan's image as a strong leader could be weakened. His leadership image has been one of the President's main political strengths with the public and Congress.
The German trip has suddenly become ``a political cyclone,'' says one insider. Another person close to the White House complains that the Reagan staff ``seriously underestimated'' the reaction of the Jewish community.
Every White House attempt to blow out the political fires only seems to fan the flames.
Among a range of political experts, however, there is considerable disagreement about the long-term importance of this controversy. Some experts warn that the furor threatens to undercut the President's effectiveness during much of his second term.
Others disagree. They say Mr. Reagan has proved adept at handling political troubles like this before, and the fuss over the German trip will soon be forgotten.
Interestingly, the closer one gets to the White House, the greater the concern one finds.
David Gergen, an aide to Mr. Reagan during the first term, says: ``The hole seems to get deeper each day. Until the White House gets to the bottom of it, one hardly knows where it is going to end. It's now stretched on for over a week, and there seems to be no end in sight.''
Mr. Gergen, who is now associated with the American Enterprise Institute, observes, ``If the administration fails this test, [the President] risks losing much of the magic and sense of invincibility that he now has.''
Another Republican, a political adviser to the White House, suggests that one of the greatest dangers will be to Reagan's agenda on Capitol Hill. The adviser, who asked that his name not be used, pointed particularly to aid for the contras in Nicaragua, and to major cuts the President wants to make in domestic spending. Every day spent dousing the fires over the German visit is a day Reagan loses for those other priorities.
Political scientist William Schneider, also at the American Enterprise Institute, calls the controversy ``very damaging. The one thing the President trades on is not only image, but leadership -- what was so lacking in Jimmy Carter. Reagan has been in firm control, and now, all of a sudden, we see it falling apart.''
All this makes Reagan look less intimidating to members of Congress, and it could be one reason the President appeared to back down in recent days on the issue of aid to the rebels in Nicaragua, Mr. Schneider says.
Others, however, say that kind of analysis is overblown. Political veteran Richard Scammon says this flap is just the usual kind of huffing and puffing one can expect occasionally over a White House decision. He expects Reagan to emerge afterward riding as high as ever.
So does Stephen Hess, who is a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of a number of books on politics.
Says Mr. Hess: ``Certainly it was a blunder. Everybody agrees on that. . . . But I would assume that the whole trip should be a plus for Reagan once they've appropriately backed off.
``Remember, this is a group that is very good at backing off. We forget how many times it looks as if somebody has cornered Ronald Reagan and [he] just slips through and is back on the other side without even pausing to note that he was in any political, moral, or other difficulties.''
David Hoppe, administrative aide to Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York, says that on Capitol Hill there is no apparent damage -- so far. That might change if the controversy continued to bubble for another month or more, he says. If this had all come up at the end of May, for example, Reagan's legislative agenda could have been threatened, Mr. Hoppe suggests.
Political scientist Norman Ornstein says the controversy is testing Reagan's new political team, headed by former Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan.
Those on the previous Reagan team, led by chief of staff James A. Baker III, ``were always thinking 10 steps ahead,'' Dr. Ornstein says. The new team hasn't shown that kind of talent.
On Friday, the White House announced that Reagan was adding a new stop to his trip: a wreath-laying and religious ceremony at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The stop was meant to mollify Jewish leaders who were upset that his initial itinerary included a visit to a German military cemetery, but not to a concentration camp. From Bergen-Belsen he will fly to Bitburg, site of the military cemetery, where he will also lay a wreath.
When the new Reagan staff originally agreed that the President would go to Bitburg, it was either overlooked or discounted that about 30 members of the Waffen SS are buried there, Ornstein observes. Sharper staff work would have noted that it was a Waffen unit, the 1st SS Panzer Division, which massacred 71 unarmed American war prisoners near Malm'edy, Belgium, on Dec. 17, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.
Republicans are already concerned about the kind of pictures they expect to see on the TV news: the President laying a wreath in the cemetery, then the camera panning to an SS grave, with a reporter describing SS atrocities during World War II.
Can the damage be repaired? GOP sources say US-West German relations likely require Reagan to go ahead with the cemetery visit. Otherwise, he would embarrass a government that has supported US policy in Europe.
One GOP insider says: ``I think what Reagan will say while he is there, if people listen to it, will mitigate this controversy, even to veterans.''