Gorbachev and the revived presidency

A FEW brave observers in Washington are beginning to express an au contraire view about President Reagan. They say that it is not fair to call this a failing presidency, despite recent events, particularly the Iran-contra scandal that eroded Ronald Reagan's standing. Instead, they assert, to put Mr. Reagan's administration in proper perspective one must remember that until a relatively few months ago he appeared to most Americans to be a strong, decisive leader.

And now Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the President are engaged in significant peacemaking. Next will come a mutual effort to reduce the long-range nuclear missiles and conventional armaments. Is the escalating arms race coming to an end? Are tensions between two great powers beginning to ease?

And if some years from now the historians observe that the road to nuclear disarmament started with this intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) agreement - what then will they have to say about President Reagan, a man who was setting his sights on reducing (and not just capping) nuclear arms as early as his first campaigning for president?

Peacemaking can help immensely in shoring up a presidency. It might not be enough: Richard Nixon's accomplishments abroad were inundated by Watergate and almost washed away in public memory. But in the last several years Mr. Nixon's opening up of mainland China and accomplishing of d'etente with the Soviets have returned to public notice. Historians are upgrading Nixon - how far no one knows.

Nixon's anticommunist reputation offset disappointment among his GOP conservative backers for his China and Soviet diplomacy; so will Reagan's longstanding anticommunism help him among GOP conservatives now dragging their feet on the INF pact.

Already some of the most vocal opponents of INF in the Senate are beginning to mute their dissent. The reasons: They rather like the verification provisions that have just been arrived at, and the political signs point to the popularity of nuclear reduction.

Other factors indicate that reports of the political demise of the President have been exaggerated:

The market crash is being reassessed. The economy didn't crash. A Reagan-Congress pact should reduce deficits by $76 billion in the next two years.

Of course, the budget summitry outcome is criticized as insufficient. But the pact was a helpful, positive response to the market decline - even though only time will tell whether it is enough to restore confidence among the market investors.

The President's top hands, particularly Treasury Secretary James Baker III, were heavily involved in shaping the result of this economic summit. And Reagan himself was very much engaged, watching each move warily and providing a conciliatory approach to increased taxes, without which there could have been no such agreement.

The slow, bumpy process toward peace proceeds in Nicaragua - with the President still quite visibly involved in appearing to encourage this movement. House Speaker James Wright and other critics have charged Reagan with not being more a part of that delicate diplomacy. But the fact remains that the President is allowing the peacemaking efforts in Nicaragua to go forward.

All these signs of a revived presidency, or, at least, of a President who is viewed as actively involved in shaping policy and running the nation, are beginning to be noted by the politicians. Listen to the presidential aspirants on the stump or in debate, particularly the Democrats: They are softening their criticism of the President, tending to put their objections to Republican leadership in broader terms.

Through the Reagan years in the White House, Democratic officeholders or office seekers abided by a simple rule: ``Never take on Reagan by name. It will hurt you with too many voters.'' This rule had broken down during the last year as Reagan's standing with the public flagged.

But once again Ronald Reagan is being perceived as possessing political stature. He is not as formidable as before the Iran-contra affair, but too formidable to attack head on.

Historians may find Reagan's current resurgence remarkable. Will they look at Mikhail Gorbachev's visit and the arms accord as the events that revived Ronald Reagan's presidency? What irony! That a communist leader should give new political life to that longtime anti-Soviet warrior.

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

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