For the long-term health and well-being of the Reagan administration, the only thing worse than losing the AWACS vote would be to misjudge the meaning of the victory.
The point was made best by one of the top Republican legislative strategists in the House of Representatives, talking just minutes after the Senate had given President Reagan his come-from-behind win.
"There's no question this (victory) is going to give him back some of that brilliance or luster he had before the August recess," the aide said, "and that is necessary for us to have a chance with the budget votes coming up. But our concern here is that it may make the White House folks believe that any time they need it, he can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
"What they need to understand," he said, "is that they will have to work for whatever they get."
The White House worked like the dickens for the AWACS victory, of course, but in the end, it was Reagan's face-to-face plea to wavering senators not to undercut his credibility with foreign leaders that turned the trick.
But the massive mobilization of political and financial pressure that undergirded the president's pleading was out of all proportion to the objective that was gained.
Former secretary of defense Melvin R. Laird, one of those recruited by the White House for the last-ditch lobbying effort, was right when he said after the 52-48 vote, "This escalated into much too much of a presidential issue. It should have been taken care of by the State and Defense departments, but they were asleep. . . . So it all got dumped on the president's lap."
Once it was there, it was, as Laird said, "a fight you had to win. Reagan is looked on by guys like (Helmut) Schmidt and (Pierre) Trudeau as not having much of a feel for foreign policy. This was certainly not the issue on which to test his mastery of foreign policy, but it was the issue he was handed, so he had to win it."
In this basic sense, the AWACS victory is fundamentally different from the earlier congressional victories on the president's budget and tax policies--which deservedly did impress Congress and the political community with Reagan's leadership prowess.
Those victories capped carefully orchestrated lobbying campaigns aimed at passage of keystone policies in very much the form the president had chosen and on the timetable he had set. By contrast, the AWACS campaign was a hastily improvised rescue mission for a program that was peripheral to his long- term objectives, even in the Middle East.
The administration rationale that the radar planes will serve the needs of an emerging anti- Soviet military alliance, embracing both Israel and the Saudis, is disbelieved by most members of Congress--including many of the senators who ultimately voted with Reagan to spare him the embarrassment of which Laird spoke.
The AWACS fight was different from the earlier Reagan victories in still another sense. The tax and budget votes were framed skillfully, not just to produce the policy changes the president wanted, but to alter the political coalitions that dominate Congress and the country.
The "Reagan coalition" was expanded and welded together by those votes, which united virtually all Republicans with a group of philosophically and politically compatible moderate and conservative Democrats, responsive to constituencies where the president's ideas had prevailed in the public debate.
AWACS was the opposite kind of victory. The president never attempted or bothered to persuade the country either that the issue was important or that he was right. The active constituency--largely Jewish--was opposed to the president's policy and is now less likely to join his coalition in future elections.
In Congress, AWACS divided rather than united his natural supporters. House Republicans voted against him, 108-78. In the Senate, after all the supplications, a dozen Republicans still held out. Rep. Jack Kemp and Sen. Bill Roth--the co-sponsors of the Kemp-Roth tax bill that is at the heart of Reaganomics--both voted against the president on AWACS.
His margin of victory was supplied by a group of senators that included some of the more celebrated showboats, mavericks and legislative lightweights in that exclusive club --shifting sands on which to build any future political coalition.
The president was fortunate to have won, for a defeat would have been seriously damaging abroad and at home. But as Francis Bacon, and King Pyrrhus before him, said, "Another such victory, we are undone."