THE Republicans unleashed a major political salvo last week with President Reagan's veto of the 1989 Defense Authorization Bill. Supposedly, that presidential deed gives Vice-President George Bush added excuse to attack Michael Dukakis and the Democrats as ``soft on defense.'' But now that the smoke has cleared, the veto episode appears to have misfired. Little in the bill substantiates Mr. Reagan's contention that the nearly $300 billion authorization signaled a ``basic change ... back toward weakness and accommodation.'' That language, of course, is what the President's party would like to hang around the necks of the Democrats this fall. The facts, however, tell a different story.
Much of the White House criticism of the bill was aimed at the decreased funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The final draft shaved SDI money from $4.9 billion to $4.1 billion, devoting the difference to conventional arms. The President has made a space-based antimissile system central to his vision of the nation's security, but ever since its introduction the idea has been drawing fire from many quarters - not all of them Democratic. And in any case, the fiscal '89 trims from SDI were considerably smaller than those made in previous years. Why pick the fight now?
Another point of contention was a shifting of priorities among strategic missile systems. The administration had wanted production of more MX missiles and railroad basing of these weapons. Many Democrats in Congress tended to favor the smaller, more mobile Midgetman missile. What emerged in the bill was a compromise authorizing enough money to keep both systems alive and let the next administration choose between them. Such a compromise had been anticipated.
The four-inch-thick bill, in fact, embraced many items and omissions sure to irk one side or the other in the national security debate. It was, after all, the end product of a long give-and-take process.
Last November administration and congressional leaders met to hammer out the outlines of a compromise defense package. Everyone knew the days of huge increases in defense spending were gone. An orderly readjustment of priorities was needed to bring the Pentagon budget into line with deficit-trimming goals. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci III took on the task, and much of what he championed, such as military salary increases, remained intact in the final authorization bill.
The veto, it's clear, was a political tactic. But could it succeed as such?
Much of the American public has doubts about Democrats when it comes to defense. Surveys during the past year indicate that voters view Republicans as more likely to maintain a strong defense and be tougher in arms negotiations. Democrats are seen as better managers of the defense budget and better watchdogs against corruption and scandal at the Pentagon.
The Bush campaign, it seems, is counting on appealing to voters' concerns that the United States stay militarily strong. Certainly the news contains plenty that supports a need for vigilance. But it also includes stories about an evolving Soviet Union, and much of the military buildup of the Reagan era has been aimed at potential conflict with the Soviets rather than at smaller, more limited conflict. Today's news also has no shortage of reports about scandal and mismanagement in the Pentagon's procurement system.
The question, clearly, is whose fortunes will be served by a heavy emphasis on defense in the fall campaign. The answer is by no means obvious.
Standing back from the politics for a moment, one thing should be obvious: Neither candidate wants to weaken the country or undermine its ability to act as a force for peace in the world. Neither man is going to radically cut the Pentagon's budget, though both will have to continue the difficult process, begun in 1985, of reining in that budget. President Reagan need not have bowed to politics in vetoing the current bill and knocking that process off track for the moment.