The president dipped his pen in his enchanted ink and called the nation to order Thursday night. He did not again turn the public's bones to water -- such raptures are for newlyweds, and hence are things of the past. But he did four useful things.
At a moment of national nervousness, not to say neurosis, about economic arcana, the president came front and center to show (as E. M. Forster said) that "keeping calm and cheerful is one of one's unshakable functions."
Second, he cauterized the Social Security issue, which could have turned the 1982 election into a referendum on the Republican "attack" on Social Security. The proposal to put off painful choices until after a bipartisan study is mandatory politics (there being no moral obligation to walk off a cliff). It also is a venerable Washington tradition. It is a combination of the Scarlet O'Hara Doctrine of Government ("I'll think about it tomorrow") and the "Annie" Hypothesis ("Tomorrow is always a day away").
Third, the president reaffirmed his determination to press for reductions in a range of other entitlement programs. An understandably skeptical financial community is watching for evidence that government can modify promises that were made improvidently. And the financial community is watching for evidence that this president can avoid the paralysis that has afflicted most recent presidents. (The proposed AWACS sale is a threat to economic health because it may end with a presidential defeat that would be seen in financial as well as diplomatic circles as evidence that the United States still is not led by its president but by Congress, a fractious committee of 535.)
Fourth, the president focused attention on something the public understands and likes: cutting government payrolls. In this regard, it was interesting that the AFL-CIO, while staging "solidarity" rallies, does demonstrate class division -- division within the labor movement. The division is between blue-collar workers and the "new class" white-collar workers of the public employees' unions. The latter are left-wing, shrill -- and directly threatened by the president's program. Blue-collar workers know they pay taxes that pay for white-collar workers, with whom they feel something less than "solidarity." Tennyson said Browning would die in white-tie, and some people may think Reaganites wear black-tie when cutting the budget. But the public is a lot angrier about "bureaucrats" than about Betsy Bloomingdale's parties.
It is reported that many congressmen are not so much angry at David Stockman as they are "sick and tired" of him. That does them no credit. Perhaps never in American history has an executive branch appointee been so indispensable to so much. Had he not been available for his job, the president's program would not have begun moving until May, and would not have moved far by next May. If the markets are jittery about Reaganite action, imagine how they would be in the face of inaction -- in a fifth year of drift.
Some congressmen resent Stockman not because he is a constant bringer of bad news and poser of hard choices, but because he has risen above his -- or their -- station. Washington is a steep social pyramid, and many congressmen have little engines fueled by envy of a few who rise from anonymity -- especially those whose rise is the merited result of industriousness in the service of imagination.
Stockman is guilty not only of precocity but of coherence. He understands that a great nation's economy is like a Rubik's Cube. It has six sides, and you have to fix all six simultaneously. Congress is almost systematically incoherent, unable (when not just unwilling) to consider how one thing leads to, or is connected to, two thousand others.
Stockman is the sharp chisel the president needed for sculpting new politics from the granite of government inertia. Like a chisel, Stockman is sharp because he is narrow at the cutting edge. That is not to say he is intellectually narrow. He has reflected more profoundly than most about broad questions of social policy. To say he is narrow at his cutting edge is just to say he is, of necessity, tightly focused. Cutting is his job.
A chisel takes a pounding, and wears out. But that outcome is, I pray, a long way off, and before it happens Stockman will have set a standard of public service at which most subsequent servants will shoot in vain.
"Everything," said Dostoevski, "seems stupid when it fails." Reagan's program will seem stupid if (which I do not expect) it fails. Meanwhile, some of Stockman's critics resemble the British cavalry officer who was said to be so stupid even some of his fellow officers noticed.