In the beginning, there was David Stockman. The budget chief did his math, checked his books and figured out that the only way to avoid a disastrous federal deficit was either to forgo a tax cut or trim the defense budget. He was certain his logic would prevail on Ronald Reagan. It did not.
Then came various members of the White House staff. They, too, looked at the numbers, looked at the tax program, looked at the Pentagon budget and thought that Ronald Reagan would see what they did. He was blind to their numbers.
Members of Congress followed. They had done the math, too. They talked to the president but what they said fell on deaf ears. Newspaper columnists wrote and bankers expressed their opinions and still the president stuck to his guns. He had not listened in the campaign to either John Anderson or to George (Voodoo Economics) Bush and he was not going to listen now. In the end, he got his way and the nation slipped into a deep recession.
Given a columnist's need to condense, this is more or less the scenario laid out by White House aides and others to both me and other members of the press. The picture they paint is of a president very sure of himself, stuck in ideological concrete -- a man who substitutes slogans for analysis and who even now, facing a $200 billion deficit and almost nowhere but the Pentagon to trim, rules out either a tax increase or a cut in the bloated defense budget.
For a long time, this picture of an ideologically lonely and stubborn Reagan was something of an official secret. Now, however, the word is leaking out as some presidential aides go out of their way to say that they knew better all along -- and vainly tried to do something about it.
And now this is something the country has learned firsthand. The president decided to use the midterm elections as an opportunity to get a vote of confidence from the American people. He has taken his show on the road. By doing so, he has turned countless local campaigns into a national referendum on his economic program -- or tried to. This is what the president wanted and this is probably what he is going to get.
There were, after all, other choices. The president could simply have stayed in the White House. He could have adopted the so-called Rose Garden strategy used by some of his predecessors -- notably Jimmy Carter in his own campaign against Reagan. The idea is to appear "presidential," a world leader with more to do than engage in partisan politics -- a leader above the petty concerns of lower-ranking politicians. Carter used the Iranian hostage crisis as his reason for not stumping. Reagan certainly could have used the Middle East crisis to do the same thing -- especially because the presidency itself is not on the line.
But he did nothing of the sort. Instead the president hit the campaign trail. Whether he did so simply to blunt whatever gains the Democrats were thought to be making or because he really wanted a referendum on his program is immaterial. They both amount to the same thing. The important point is that the president clearly thought that he had a program to sell and that he should do the selling.
There is something pathetic about it. Like the White House staff before it, the country is now confronted with a president who thinks the validity of his statements is in his saying them -- and the passion he attaches to them. He tells a nation that is in the throes of a recession that it never had it so good and he asks it to stick to a course that so far has brought nothing but misery. Unlike Washington insiders, campaign audiences can't check the numbers, but they know -- just from their own lives -- that there is a discrepancy between what the president says and what their own eyes tell them.
The upshot is a president traveling the country in a cocoon of his own making -- shunned even by some Republican candidates. He shows determination. He shows courage. He shows a willingness to fight for what he believes. In fact, he shows so much that now the nation knows what some in Washington have known all along. The Great Communicator won't listen.