George Bush called it "voodoo economics" in the heat of the presidential campaign, and if there is nothing supernatural about Ronald Reagan's economic strategy, there is mystery enough about how it will unfold and whether it will work.
The sense of mystery has deepened somewhat in the two months since election day as Reagan has filled the economic policy positions in his cabinet.
The new cabinet is clearly in the Republican mold. The businessmen chose by Reagan for key cabinet positions, headed by Donald T. Regan, the former chairman of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, have solid reputations in their fields. Their and less governmental regulation are as pronounced as the pinstripes in their business suits.
In Rep. David Stockman (R-Mich.), the incoming head of the Office of Management and Budget, Reagan has one of the congressional experts on the federal bureaucracy, who has strong views on where to cut the budget.
So the Reagan appointments are hardly startling.
The question concerns how this team will work. It has been Reagan's long-standing practice to depend on a few trusted advisers to help set policies and carry them out, and he has often said he intends to run such a "cabinet" government in the White House. "Reagan likes discussion. He likes to hear different viewpoints," says Caspar W. Weinberger, Reagan's longtime associate and secretary of Defense-designate.
But the men who will be responsible for economic policies are not close to Reagan personally -- not confidants in any sense of the word.
Regan was reportedly pushed into the picture at Treasury by his friend William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager and the nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency, and although Reagan has many close friends from the business world, the Merrill Lynch chairman was not among them.
Nor was Malcolm Baldrige, chairman of the Connecticut-based manufacturing firm, Scovill Inc., and chosen by Reagan to head the Commerce Department.
Stockman's association with Reagan didn't really begin until late in the campaign, when he played stand-in for Rep. John B. Anderson and President Carter during Reagan's rehearsals for the campaign debates.
Raymond Donovan, executive vice president of Schiavone Construction Co., a New Jersey contracting firm, was rewarded for his campaign support for Reagan by the nomination as Labor secretary, but he is not a Reagan insider, either.
Thus as Reagan prepares to take charge and as his cabinet moves into position, it is unclear to outsiders how his economic team will function, where the responsibilities and power will fall, and who will have Reagan's ear.
His cabinet officers bring their own strengths and perspectives with them. Regan was highly regarded on Wall Street for his development of a five-year strategy to move his brokerage firm into new commercial areas here and abroad. Aides say he is skilled in anticipating problems and preparing for them.
Baldrige's background should permit him to continue the Carter administration's efforts to increase communication among government business and labor, particularly on the problems of aging industries like steel and autos, where innovation is essential.
Regan's appointment dismayed some of the Republican right wing, who question his commitment to the new administration's supply-side economic plan for cutting individual taxes despite the inflationary risks. Key positions on Regan's staff will be filled by economists with firm conservative credentials, however, and Regan insists that he, too, is a supply-sider at heart. Regan will be the administration's chief economic spokesman. At this point, the intellectual spark plug on economic issues appears to be Stockman.
Stockman stood apart from most members of Congress during his four years there because of his outspoken attacks on federal grants. The pork barrel politics he repeatedly attacked, however, is the lubricant that makes Congress run, and perhaps the major domestic political question confronting Reagan is whether he can use his landslide victory over Carter to impose a change in congressional attitudes on spending. How close Reagan and Stockman are on this issue remains to be seen.
Reagan could have shed light on these questions during the transition period, but he chose to spend most of that time out of public view in California, and his part in the cabinet selection process isn't known by those outside his small circle of close advisers.
Reagan's seeming isolation during the transition -- whether true or not -- is beginning to cause some concern among congressional Republicans, who feel Reagan must move quickly to set the economic agenda for 1981 immediately after the Jan. 20 inauguration. Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.) said last week that Reagan had appeared to be "somewhat disengaged" during the transition.
But that too is true to Reagan's style. His economic strategy was firmly in place long before election day, and Reagan has seen no reason to alter his plans, advisers have said. Instead, he has been content to let transition aides prepare detailed options for cutting the budget.
Observers have noted a significant difference between Reagan's first personnel decisions in the economic area and those of Jimmy Carter four years ago, as he formed his new administration.
The first major post Carter filled was the chairmanship of his Council of Economic Advisers, picking Charles L. Schultze, a liberal economist and budgetary expert. Carter, whose overall economic design was not set on election day, chose one of Washington's most experienced economic insiders.
But the CEA chairman is one of the last major posts Reagan has turned to, and the implication is that with his policy set, he has less need for a top-ranked economic theoretician.
With the exception of Stockman, the businessmen Reagan has appointed to the top economic policy posts are thought of as managers, not economic theoreticians, however, and Stockman's considerable economic background is self-taught, not academic.
That raises the question, to whom will Reagan turn if his strategy breaks down or is made obsolete by unforseen economic hazards -- a new recession, a new attack on the dollar, an explosive increase in wage demands or a new oil price shock?
The question is complicated by the fact that he does have close, trusted associates in his cabinet, but their portfolios aren't in the economic area. Reagan's attorney general-designate, Los Angeles lawyer William French Smith, is Reagan's personal attorney, who also served at Reagan's request on the University of California's Board of Regents.
Weinberger is another close friend and associate, serving as director of finance in California while Reagan was governor. Moreover, he is a strong advocate of Reagan's concept of cabinet government, believeing that cabinet members should be free to suggest policy in areas outside of their direct responsibilities.
It would be natural for Reagan to turn to Smith and Weinberger for advice on an important economic policy issue -- it's hard to imagine him not doing so. Weinberger, for instance, is expert on budget issues, having run OMB during the Nixon administration. Until Reagan picked him for the Defense post, Weinberger was directing the staff work on cutting the budget.
Beyond these two associates, Reagan will have several top policy aides on the White House staff who are certain to have some influence on economic policy. Edwin Meese III, Reagan's policy chief, and Martin Anderson, a conservative economist who will direct domestic policy, were both at Reagan's side throughout the presidential campaign and have his confidence.
At the outset of the new administration, at least, Reagan seems to be dealing with two circles of advisers -- the group responsible for economic policy that is not close to him personally, and a second group of close associates that isn't directly responsible for economic policy.
The lines are certain to converge as the new administration begins work, but predicting what the new alignment will look like is guesswork now.
The question would be less important if the economy conforms to Reagan's strategy. The components have been in place since September.
Three successive reductions in individual tax rates of 10 percent a year, a controversial plunge into the so-called "supply side economics" intended to prompt people to work harder and increase savings and investments through the incentive of lower taxes.
With these individual cuts, Reagan also seeks tax reductions to stimulate greater business investment, although this apparently still has a lower priority with him.
A tough campaign to reduce the growth in federal spending on nonmilitary programs, centered on cuts in some politically popular areas that have been untouchable in the past. The budget strategists have been looking at limits on Medicaid, federal retirement benefits, food stamps, student aid and cuts in capital spending grants from the space program to mass transit and highway funds.
A determined attempt to reduce the government regulation of business.
Continued support for the Federal Reserve Board's efforts to control the amount of money in circulation.
But the sands are already shifting under that foundation. Stockman and Republican Senate leaders have become convinced that Reagan must cut the budget much more deeply than Reagan spoke of during the campaign, if he expects to keep his commitment to the 10-percent, three-year individual tax cut while also adding $25 billion a year to the defense budget. Otherwise, the federal budget deficit will shoot up above $100 billion in the middle years of his first term, causing critical problems for the economy.
Some influential Republicans -- and many Democrats -- are not willing to rubber stamp Reagan's tax plans just because he asks them to. They have their own ideas and since there are practical limits on how much tax reduction is possible, something will have to give.
Reagan's predecessors, President Carter and former presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon all saw their economic game plans wiped out by unplanned-for setbacks. Nixon abruptly imposed wage and price controls in 1971; Ford scrapped an anti-inflation plan while the ink was still wet to deal with the recession of 1974-75, and Carter's 1977 proposal for a tax rebate also suffered a quick death as his administration had to shift its sights toward the inflation problem.
It may take some supernatural help for Reagan to avoid similar reversals of economic policies in the four years ahead.