Reagan's success by decree

CONGRESSMAN Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, a happy political warrior if there ever was one, was reflecting on the passage of the bill to aid Nicaragua's ``contras.'' He had ended up voting for the legislation. But he pointed out that it was a vastly watered-down version of what the President originally wanted, and that it therefore could have been called a victory for those Democrats who really shaped this ``humanitarian aid'' package. But he observed that once again the President had been able to declare it a triumph for himself and the Republicans.

It was just another example, Aspin said, of the way this President is able to present himself as the victor in battles with Congress that are more nearly a standoff -- and get away with it.

Aspin, a Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is a skilled politician. So when he reluctantly takes off his hat to the President, it's worth noting. Aspin knows high-quality political maneuvering and positioning when he sees it.

In another area, tax reform, the President is also indicating that there is credit enough for everyone, Democrats as well as Republicans, who support his proposal. He is being quite successful in picking up Democratic cooperation. Yet if tax reform goes through, there is little doubt that the President will call it a presidential success -- a Republican success -- and, again, get away with it.

And, oh, that decision by the President to keep complying with SALT II! Aspin considers that a wily move, as well as the right action to take. From talking with people close to the President, Aspin had previously received the impression that Reagan was about to throw SALT II overboard, asserting Soviet violations.

But Reagan went the other way. Maybe, Aspin muses, Reagan made the move on his own and despite advice from influential conservative Republicans.

By so doing, Aspin said, Reagan reassured some House Democrats that he was not as much of a hard-liner as they had feared and that he could be trusted with using aid to the contras carefully -- and not as a building block for eventual US military involvement in Nicaragua.

Aspin himself is vulnerable to presidential positioning on defense appropriations. He and other Democrats have helped convince GOP leaders in Congress that the President would have to settle for less money for defense than he had been asking. Reagan, reluctantly, has agreed to this, convinced that it is the only way his budget-deficit-cutting effort can get through Congress.

Here Aspin was asked: ``Won't the President, as a result, go out on the hustings in 1986 and blast the Democrats for not giving him, and the nation, enough money for defense?'' Aspin said the President would not be in a position to do that, because it was the Republican leadership, even more than the Democrats, that persuaded Reagan to reduce his request for defense appropriations.

But Aspin did not sound too convincing. He knows that the President may do precisely that, and get the voters to pay heed.

Aspin is well aware that to win most congressional elections these days, candidates need to be perceived as favoring a strong national defense. His own vote in favor of the MX was in this direction, and it disturbed party liberals. But that vote won't hurt if someday he seeks statewide office. Many observers see that as likely, since he has already won so much attention in Washington.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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