Lifting the tone of government
Washington — ONE of the ironies of the Reagan era is that Americans feel friendlier toward the Washington establishment. For all the President's denigration of government, his self-assured, amiable leadership has helped dispel the public view that the presidency is unmanageable and that government is incapable of doing anything right. Polls show that Americans' faith in government and its institutions is higher now than when Ronald Reagan became President.
But as President-elect George Bush prepares to take office, political analysts see major elements of leadership where the Reagan presidency has fallen short and where ``government'' needs shoring up. In their view, the new chief executive must:
Demonstrate quickly that he will work together with Congress in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation rather than adopt confrontational strategies that lead to frictions and stalemate.
Set a tone of integrity in government which makes clear that violation of the law or even the appearance of wrongdoing will not be tolerated.
Restore a sense of pride in public service.
Foster public debate based on candor and realism.
Presidential historians observe that it will take the perspective of history to evaluate the Reagan presidency, the first two-term presidency since Eisenhower. But, pending the outcome of Mr. Reagan's controversial economic policies, they give him mixed reviews on tone and style of leadership.
Compared with his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, President Reagan conveyed from the outset a buoyant self-confidence that helped reassure the country. He quickly established a national agenda that was uncluttered and clear. He was consistent. And, while he was uninformed about details, he carried passionate convictions which, imparted with an actor's rhetorical skill, marshaled public support for his legislative program.
Intuitively, Mr. Reagan sensed what the American people wanted - a pride of country, a reaffirmation of family values, and a restraint on government. Even Democrats score him well for leadership while questioning his policies.
``He'll get high marks as somebody who reversed the general direction of government,'' says James Sundquist, a Brookings Institution scholar. ``Reagan has made us feel much better - but whether his policies are sound, history will judge.''
``There's no doubt he responded to and shaped the mood in the country, including the desire for less government and less taxes,'' comments presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College. ``He'll be viewed as the foremost spokesman of that view in the 20th century.''
Conflict with Congress
But Reagan has not dispelled concerns about some facets of governance. One is the heightened stalemate between Congress and the executive branch, which makes it difficult to build the consensus needed to solve the nation's economic and social problems.
Every president has had to do battle with the legislature, especially in times of divided government, that is, when the presidency was in the hands of one party and Congress in the hands of the other.
But the level of conflict and lack of trust between the branches seem to have grown, in part because of presidential attitudes and in part to increased fragmentation of power and lack of disciplined leadership in Congress.
``There's no institutional cooperation between the two branches,'' says Paul Light, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. ``Trust is extremely low, and a great deal of healing has to be done by the next president.''
Reagan's success rate in Congress dropped more than that of any previous president, according to the Congressional Quarterly. From a honeymoon high of 82.4 percent in 1981, the journal says, Reagan's success rate fell almost 40 points to 43.5 percent in 1987, indicating how his momentum declined.
Initially the President demonstrated that with political astuteness and good legislative liaison it was possible to make things happen. Deftly courting members of Congress, he won a resounding success with passage of his economic package. In 1981 he also persuaded the Senate to vote for the sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and in 1985 he won the vote for tax reform.
But legislators came to see the President as increasingly disengaged and the rivalry grew, with the two clashing on everything from budget issues and aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels to the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court.
Nothing did more, ultimately, to undermine trust and public confidence than the Iran-contra scandal, which disclosed not only a disdain of Congress and the law, but an executive branch run amok in both the making and execution of foreign policy. The Tower Commission, which investigated the scandal, criticized virtually every high member of the Reagan team for ``a failure of responsibility.''
A congressional investigating committee added to a portrait of presidential neglect, charging that Reagan had failed his duty under the Constitution to ``take care that the laws be faithfully executed'' and that his chief legal aide, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III, failed to give the President sound advice or fully investigate the scandal.
The Reagan administration, for its part, joined by conservative legislators, charged that the Congress had gone way beyond its mandate in budget policy and management of foreign policy.
Recent weeks have seen a more conciliatory posture in the White House. Rea- gan, determined to leave office on a positive note, and not wishing to make waves for Mr. Bush, has signed a number of laws he might otherwise have opposed.
But after the Reagan years, political leaders say, a determined effort will be required to restore trust and build a more cooperative spirit between the two branches. Without such cooperation, they argue, it will be difficult to deal with the budget deficit and other problems.
``You have to work with Congress,'' Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, tells Reagan's successor in his book ``Letters to the Next President.'' ``It will be exasperating but essential if you want to succeed.... When you argue `executive privilege' and demand to go it alone, the results will usually lack an important political element and will occasionally be disastrous to your credibility at home and abroad.''
Leadership and the `sleaze factor'
What intrigues Reagan-watchers, and what the Iran-contra fiasco illustrates, are the paradoxes of the President's singular style of leadership. For all his gift of communication, his public presence, and his proven political instincts, Reagan has been curiously detached from operations in his own White House. Memoirs by former members of the administration, including loyalists, bear out the unusual extent to which the President delegated authority, failed to demand accountability from subordinates, and followed plans worked out by his aides.
Reagan's behind-the-scenes passivity went largely unnoticed in the early part of the administration because of his resounding legislative success and high popularity ratings. But the Iran-contra scandal, as well as the growing number of administration officials under an ethical cloud, drew increasing attention to his laid-back manner of governing.
More than 100 senior Reagan appointees have stood accused of unethical or illegal conduct since Reagan took office, on charges ranging from questionable stock deals and favors for friends to lying to Congress and defrauding the government. A number have been convicted, including a former high White House aide, an official of the Environmental Protection Agency, and a former deputy secretary of defense.
Throughout, Reagan has never addressed the moral issues involved or showed any visible concern about the ``sleaze factor'' of his administration. On the contrary, he has stressed loyalty to and from his aides and attributed the sharp rise in indictments to the stricter ethics laws passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. He has kept himself aloof from the government he leads.
``He has been able to make out as if he was not part of the government for eight years,'' says Hugh Heclo, a presidential scholar at George Mason University. ``He has remained an outsider in the White House. Things happen around him and he blames the bureaucrats and Congress as if he were not governing.''
While a president cannot mandate ethical behavior, political analysts say, the standards he sets for his administration and the caliber of people he enlists for government help create an atmosphere felt throughout the system. ``The present moral climate in the country cannot be sustained,'' says sociologist Amitai Etzioni, referring to corporate as well as government scandal. ``The new president has to set a different tone.''
John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and a former Democratic Cabinet secretary, suggests that the Reagan administration, in its efforts to deregulate government, weakened the enforcement clauses of laws and created a general atmosphere of laxity. But Mr. Gardner says that Americans are ready to face up to the resulting problems.
``People want to put themselves behind something that matters,'' he remarks. ``There is a desire for commitment that we are not tapping. The moral fiber has been badly damaged, but it's there to be called on.''
Civil service demoralized
A problem relating to the tone of government is the demoralized state of public service. Surveys show that many civil servants leave government because they feel the public does not respect the career of a federal official.
``Unmistakable evidence is accumulating that government is increasingly unable to attract, retain, and motivate the kinds of people it will need to do the essential work of the republic in the years and decades ahead,'' Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, told a conference at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year.
Pay scales that lag behind those in the private sector account for only a part of the ``brain drain'' from government and the serious difficulties in recruitment. The low morale also stems from the antigovernment climate fed by both the Carter and Reagan administrations.
``In recent years there has not just been indifference toward public service, there has been a distinctly anti-Washington theme in much of our political rhetoric,'' stated Mr. Volcker, who is chairman of the National Commission on the Public Service, a group that has made recom-mendations for the incoming president.
Even the Reagan administration has voiced alarm about an ``emerging crisis of competence'' in the civil service. Yet in its effort to put a conservative stamp on government and discourage federal activism, it has contributed to the problem by further politicizing the civil service. Reagan staffed not only the top advisory and policy positions with political appointees but lower-level operating jobs as well - even in such agencies as the Park Service.
The growth of political appointees is especially marked in mid-level management jobs. According to the House Civil Service Committee, the number of mid-level political appointees rose from about 740 in 1980 to almost 1,000 this year.
``Republican and Democratic administrations both in a decade have weakened our institutional capacity,'' says Mr. Light. ``There are too many political appointees and not enough attention to healthy career service.''
The US Foreign Service, in particular, experienced a dramatic rise in political appointees and a consequent erosion of morale. The number of ambassadors who were political appointees rose from 26 percent under the Carter administration to 38 percent in the Reagan years. ``The contrast is depressing, because it has meant fewer jobs for career officers and that has had its impact,'' says George Vest, director general of the Foreign Service.
Critics of the trend acknowledge that every new president needs to put like-minded officials in place who are attuned to his philosophy and responsive to his political agenda. Bringing in new blood also stimulates new ideas and invigorates the bureaucracy.
But critics stress that political appointees must first of all be qualified. Also, they need to work with, not against, the career officials, who have valuable institutional memory, know how the federal government works, and are responsive to strong leadership from the top, regardless of party.
Symbols and substance
Looking to the next administration, presidential analysts also voice the hope that Reagan's style of relying heavily on image-making will gave way to less ideological political debate. Reagan has been a master at employing symbols - the Statue of Liberty, the beaches of Normandy, returning military heroes - to foster a ``morning in America'' mood and sense of national pride.
But in the process, Reagan has often ignored or exaggerated the facts and, critics say, has in effect created an unrealistic world in which the largest budget deficits in history, a tripled national debt, government corruption, environmental problems, and other harsh realities seemed not to exist. His speeches, delivered with relaxed charm, soothed his listeners and told Americans what they liked to hear, namely, that America is prospering and at peace.
``The Reagan years are marked by a deterioration of political discourse,'' says James Barber, a presidential scholar at Duke University.
``What is needed now is a resurrection of a rationality in American politics which was the intent of the Founding Fathers, who were skeptics, not romantics, who were energetic in trying to be realistic, and were not given to the diversion of ideology,'' Mr. Barber says.
Few people suggest that the new president should eschew optimism in favor of a gloomy, down-in-the-mouth approach, but he is urged to encourage honest, candid debate and impress on Americans the need to respond to problems. ``That was not Reagan's way,'' Dr. Heclo says. ``He taught them to simplify the world and believe their won preconceptions, not to rethink the situation.''
``People would like someone to say, `We have a problem and here are our choices,''' remarks Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.
``There is a longing for that kind of debate.''
Tomorrow: A turn to the right on civil rights?