Ed Crane's op-ed article ("Reagan Never Meant What He Said," Aug. 19) is the latest in the New Right's crescendoing chorus that, in John Lofton's terse phrase, "Reagan isn't a Reaganite." In the same vein is this month's Conservative Digest, where Richard Viguerie unleashes a screed entitled "Has Reagan Deserted Conservatives?" (If you haven't read it yet, I won't give away the ending.)
Can Crane, Lofton and Viguerie be serious?
There are, to be sure, several uncharitable things one may say about Reagan, but among them is not that he is a phony conservative. Far closer to the mark is his candid quip of last April, when he told a group of Catholic educators, "We're a bunch of radicals." This is surely more than rhetoric, as a recitation of several administration highlights in its first 18 months indicates:
* His proposed Social Security cuts were rejected 96-0 by the Senate.
* The Voting Rights Act he initially opposed as "extreme" passed both houses by about 15-1 margins.
* Every president from Truman through Carter had narrowed the use of government confidentiality; Reagan expanded it.
* For the past 11 years, since President Nixon, the IRS refused to give tax exempt status to segregated academies; Reagan tried to permit it.
* Every president from JFK through Carter has negotiated for a comprehensive test ban treaty -- until Reagan.
* Reagan proposed eliminating the Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers to the indigent, and lost 3-1 in the Republican-controlled Senate.
* His economic program combines budget cuts for the poor (10 percent drop, FY '82 to '83) with tax breaks for the wealthy (5 percent get 35 percent of the cuts). The poverty rate has increased to its highest level since 1967, says the Census Bureau.
* The administration is trying to weaken a Clean Air Act that 80 percent of the public (Harris Poll) wants kept intact or strengthened.
* A person who didn't believe in promoting human rights abroad was named to the human rights post; appointees hostile to environmental regulation, antitrust law enforcement, workplace safety and the strip-mining law now run agencies dealing with each area.
* He has accelerated military spending so substantially -- the $1.5 trillion to be spent in the next five years is as much as the previous 10 -- that even hawks such as John Connally and William Simon have urged spending reductions by 1986.
* The president broke a union, said there could be a limited nuclear war in Europe, and has proposed easing child labor laws when nearly 10 percent of adults are unemployed.
For God's sake, New Right, give the man credit! Presidents Nixon and Ford were no slouches, but they didn't come close to this attempt to convert Human Events editorials into the law of the land. If President Reagan has failed to be America's first reactionary president, it surely isn't for lack of trying.
Now it's true Reagan hasn't gone as far as some on the right wing of the right wing would like. He hasn't abolished food stamps, as Richard Viguerie advocates; he hasn't proposed a literacy test for voting, as Sen. Jesse Helms has suggested; he hasn't attempted to "Christianize" America, as Paul Weyrich has urged; by proposing the recent tax increase/reform, he appears unhappy at the prospect of $200 billion annual federal deficits, unlike Terry Dolan and Arthur Laffer.
Why not? The fault is not an insincerely conservative Reagan, but an inadequately conservative America. There is quite simply no mandate for, much less majority support for, this far-right agenda. When Reagan voters were asked in exit polls why they voted for Reagan, only 10 percent said, "Because he was the most conservative." Let us not forget how the 1980 choice involved "the evil of two lessers," according to James Reston, and that Reagan ended up getting 2 percent more than Gerald Ford in 1976.
On a battery of issues -- the ERA, abortion, environmental regulation, nuclear power, nuclear arms reductions, a jobs program, the Voting Rights Act, Social Security cuts -- poll after poll indicates that the public is far more liberal than either Reagan or Viguerie. In fact, the New Right "social agenda," which desires big government regulation of morality and which was considered the crux of the "Emerging Republican Majority" by conservative Kevin Phillips a decade ago, is now regarded by Phillips as a political "loser."
So it is hardly surprising that the New Right has lost all three fights when it has thrown down its gauntlet: the Sandra Day O'Connor nomination, Taiwan and the $99 billion tax bill. And it will probably continue to lose efforts to make Reagan adopt its more ideologically radical programs. For Reagan is presumably familiar with the message of President Eisenhower, who wrote in his diary in November 1954 that, "far from appeasing or reasoning with the dyed-in-the-wool reactionary fringe, we should completely ignore it and when necessary repudiate it. . . . Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our history."
Because Reagan doesn't want to commit a political self- immolation, Crane argues that "this is not the most ideological administration in generations, as portrayed by the media." Really? Who recently has been more avowedly ideological? Carter, Nixon, LBJ? JFK, Ike, Truman? Hardly. A man whose favorite economist is Milton Friedman, whose favorite president is Calvin Coolidge and who would occasionally travel in 1980 with only back issues of Human Events as reading, cannot easily be accused of moderation.
The ideologues of the "New Fright" throw both darts and fits -- and will never be satisfied. They are so accustomed to being a bur under someone's saddle, and have so little inclination for the political tug-and-give of governmental process, that they will habitually spank Reagan for his infidelity. Yawn.
Governing is quite a bit different from sending out vitriolic letters to NCPAC's mailing lists -- a difference that seems to escape them. Why should our most conservative of presidents walk the plank with them when popular support just isn't there? Reagan is ultra-conservative. America isn't.