TAX reform, with the President giving it a vigorous push, is clearly center stage in Washington. And here are the presidential political considerations, both global and national, that have brought this about: For a while the achievement of a nuclear-arms pact was Mr. Reagan's No. 1 priority. He still very much wants an agreement. But faced with growing frustrations in trying to make progress with the Soviets at Geneva, the President's attention to that subject has lessened a bit. Reagan associates report he's giving less time to the arms negotiations -- usually merely repeating his unwillingness to abandon ``star wars'' and then turning to something else.
Today that ``something else'' is more often than not the President's tax-revision program, which he has put at the top of his agenda.
Those around the President say he still very much wants to leave a peace pact as a legacy of his administration, and something that history will hail. But Mr. Reagan sees very little prospect of progress there. Indeed, one Reagan adviser says the President now believes that the congressional cutback on his request for defense expenditures has relieved the Soviets of the pressure -- and urgency -- to seek to slow that United States buildup by way of an arms agreement.
Also, the President is pictured as seeing few signs to indicate that a substantive summit with Mikhail Gorbachev is imminent. And he is said to be questioning now whether it is advisable, and worth the effort, for him to go to New York in the fall merely to shake hands and get to meet the Soviet leader, should that opportunity present itself.
Reagan's enthusiasm for his new tax code proposal is shaped, in large part, by his feeling that its passage would be of inestimable help in his longtime and never-ending crusade to cut back on the size of government at all levels.
For one, Reagan is aware that the provision of his plan which would end the deduction of state income taxes has this likely effect: It will probably cause taxpayers to put more and more pressure on their state governments to spend less so as to be able to lower their state taxes.
But the President sincerely wants to make taxes fairer. This viewpoint -- reflected in his current effort to close loopholes that enable some corporations and individuals to pay little or no taxes -- stems from Reagan's ``liberal side,'' as White House insiders call it.
The President, as a younger man, was an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. At the time, Reagan saw great inequities in the society around him and felt that FDR was making needed changes.
Since then, of course, Reagan has adopted a conservative point of view. But ``down deep,'' those who know him will say he still retains a strong feeling for the underdog. Indeed, they will contend that the President fully believes that by strengthening the private sector and thus bringing about economic growth, he will truly be benefiting those in the lower income brackets (by the ``trickle down'' theory) -- much more than by pursuing and enlarging government programs.
But above all, the President is said to regard his tax revision as a way to turn what he sees as a Republican trend into something lasting. Indeed, he believes that the fairness in tax reform is so obvious -- and so appealing to all Americans -- that it could do much to bring those who are now looking favorably at the Republican Party into its ranks.
Some polls are showing that there are now almost as many voters who identify themselves as Republicans as those who say they are Democrats. But some political analysts say this is only a part of what they call the ``Reagan phenomenon,'' that it is tied to the President's popularity and that it will subside once he leaves the White House.
Reagan is said to see in tax reform, however, a way to reach voters everywhere with an appeal for equity that will hold them to the Republican Party. Further, he is convinced that tax reform will be his issue -- and a Republican issue -- no matter what role the Democrats play in bringing about its passage.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.