Reagan's road ahead
`YOU ain't seen nothin' yet,'' President Reagan was saying about his future performance. This was only a few hours after it became clear that Congress had gone Democratic and the road ahead for Mr. Reagan would be anything but easy. But what the President is saying is that he's had no last hurrah, as some observers described his recent, intensive campaign effort. Instead, his final hurrah is just beginning.
First, there will be a brief honeymoon period in which Reagan and Congress may spar a little but where it will probably become clear he isn't going to get very far with his programs. Then, he will send over a budget message that will echo the old Reagan approach: a request for budget cuts that will lean heavily on cuts in domestic programs. The Democrats will say it is ``dead on arrival.''
By this time it will be known whether the new speaker, apparently Jim Wright, and the President can sit down and find areas of accommodation. Mr. Wright is not a Tip O'Neill. He probably won't be willing to give ground. Also, those making up all of Congress's Democratic leadership - including the new Senate majority leader, Robert Byrd - may well decide that the message from this election was that Reagan had lost some of his impressive clout with the American people. So the chances are that they will be willing to take Reagan to the mat this time.
At that point Reagan will jump happily into the fray. He'll stir up a lot of sympathy for his cause. He still represents the trend in this country which definitely wants less government spending for everything except defense. Nothing in the results of this last election indicates any shift in this trend - and Reagan knows it.
But will he be able to work his will on Congress? Probably not, certainly not in total.
The more likely scenario is that we're heading for a President-Congress deadlock, one that will become increasingly bitter as the 1988 presidential election nears. Many Democrats had felt that Mr. O'Neill hadn't fought Reagan hard enough. Wright in the past has called Reagan a ``liar.'' His style will be more confrontational than O'Neill's. So in all likelihood will Senator Byrd's. Washington could be in for quite a stir.
So it is certain that Reagan isn't going to get nearly what he asked for. This will position him for a wonderful, Reagan-style goodbye.
Yes, this country ``ain't seen nothin' yet.'' This last campaign saw Reagan astounding voters as he moved here, there, and everywhere, looking like a prancing young colt. He's the oldest person ever to sit in the presidency. The public knows this and knows that each day he's setting a new record. So they applaud this old-timer as he gets a most demanding political chore done.
But wait until 1988. Reagan, by then not too far away from 80, will give us an on-the-road show we will long remember. It won't make much difference, to him, who the candidate is. Obviously, he would prefer Paul Laxalt or George Bush. But he would be quite content with Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Howard Baker, or Pete duPont, or almost anyone being mentioned now except someone who might be viewed as a nut or completely opposed to Reagan's views. The nomination of anyone in the latter two categories is not at all likely.
The GOP presidential candidate, of course, will be the lead campaigner. But it will be more of a two-star act, with Reagan sometimes at the candidate's side and often out on his own. And his message: It will be, over and over again, ``Save the Reagan revolution.''
Now that didn't play too well in this last election. But voters couldn't always see the direct correlation between voting for some relatively local candidate, whom they appreciated for things he was getting done in the home area, and stopping or supporting the Reagan revolution. But the message would be easier to sell on what the next president might or might not do.
More than anything else, the President will give the Democratic Congress a royal bashing. Recalling how Harry Truman was elected largely on his attack on the 80th Congress, ``a do-nothing Congress,'' Reagan will, in Truman's words, ``give 'em hell'' for resisting his spending cuts. He will be mounting the big stage for the last time. His performance will be something to see.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.