Still tracking Reagan

WITH more than a dozen presidential aspirants disclosing their intentions, Americans should be starting to look away from this President to the next one. They should be showing curiosity about who will occupy the White House next. There is little indication that this is happening. The gaze of America remains on Ronald Reagan - his ups and downs and in-betweens. Americans look to the arms talks with hope. They agonize over the inability of the United States to narrow the budget and trade deficits. There is considerable concern over an economy that still moves along pretty well but which, at times, shows signs of falling apart.

Is there a strong undercurrent of unrest - of dissent - a Democratic candidate could tap to carry him to the White House? That's what the Democrats seem to be counting on. They feel the voters have been turned off by the Reagan presidency - particularly by Mr. Reagan's embarrassment over the Iran-contra affair - and are ready for a Democrat.

True, the polls have shown considerable public disillusionment with Reagan. It is possible the voters will want to clean house in 1988 by elevating a Democrat to the highest office in the land.

But the views of most Americans really haven't changed since Reagan became President. This is largely because of his advocacy for changing the question ``How much federal money can we allot to deal with that problem?'' to ``What can we do to reduce government spending?''

The conservative mood around the country that Reagan first perceived and then advanced remains. Sure, some groups and interests are begging for federal aid or funds. But there is still a widespread acceptance of the conservative thesis that the country is going to be better off if both the size and the spending of the federal government can be reduced. That's Reagan's message - perhaps his sole message. His administration may have been battered by recent misadventures in foreign affairs. But his message still rings as strong as ever.

The Democrats are a little ambivalent about this spending issue. They are even leery about being branded ``liberals,'' which they know equates with many voters as meaning ``big spenders.'' The other morning over breakfast, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois was explaining why he had decided to make a presidential bid. Senator Simon is an attractive and particularly intelligent fellow, and early on as a state legislator he became known for his integrity.

Mr. Simon was moving and ducking a bit when asked whether he was not, indeed, a ``liberal.'' No, he said, he was a ``pragmatist,'' and would be proud to be called a ``Paul Douglas'' Democrat. Mr. Douglas, one of the Senate greats and a good friend of Simon, was proud to be termed a liberal.

In sum, if the voters want a complete shift of the administration in Washington, it will vote in a Democrat in 1988. But if the choice is between a Republican candidate who promises less spending and less taxes against a Democrat who talks of spending more money and imposing more taxes, the winner will probably be the candidate who says he will retain the status quo.

The Democratic candidates may find that most Americans will be sympathetic with promises of more attention to the genuine needs of the poor, the elderly, the sick, disadvantaged, and disabled, but these same voters may be less than willing to pay for programs aimed at alleviating such problems.

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

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