Everybody seems surprised these days by President Reagan's recent actions, especially the conservatives, who are in open revolt. But such surprise is possible only for those whose conception of the president derives entirely from the very conservative words he used while out of office, and not at all from his actions as a moderate conservative and a very successful governor of California.
As president, Reagan appears to be following the pragmatic pattern he set in Sacramento.
Understanding Reagan's actions both as governor and president should begin with considering his professional training as an actor. Those who dismiss acting for its superficial relationship to political leadership tend to see only one side of acting -- projection. There is another side to acting, just as important, which involves the ongoing ability to read audiences, receiving messages from and communing with them about what plays and what does not. Successful acting involves a continuing process of communication between actor and audience, and this explains why the highest moments in the acting art are reached in those moments when the communion between them is absolute.
The same qualities are, of course, also indispensable to a political leader -- not just the ability to make stirring speeches (projection) but also reading the complex assortment of audiences with which a president must deal to govern successfully -- including Congress, the bureaucracy, the media, heads of foreign governments and the broad public.
A political leader must play to a script defined by his political values and objectives, but the art of political leadership, like the acting art, requires more than mechanical script-reading. It requires putting the script over -- which in turn requires continual adjustments and even wholesale changes in it along the way. When the audience changes, the script must change. And no public leader has faced the dramatic audience changes Reagan has.
In the early years, Reagan faced only hard-core conservative audiences -- the party faithful. It was no secret what turned them on, and when they cheered, the party coffers overflowed.
In Sacramento, the burden was very different, and the new governor had great difficulties adjusting to his very different audiences. Thus even his most enthusiastic supporters concede the first two years were difficult for him -- though they were to be the only years when his party controlled the legislature. But he adjusted and enjoyed his most successful years as governor after the GOP had lost control of the legislature. In his later years, he showed himself a skillful negotiatior and got the Democratic legislature to acept major reforms in the state's welfare and Medi-Cal programs.
Out of office in 1975, he was back talking to the party faithful -- and was the most sought-after speaker for Republican fund-raisers. Again, the performance changed, and people quickly forgot his years as governor.
At the start of the presidential campaign, after the conventions, Reagan faced the broad public once again, and once again he had trouble adjusting. In one week before Labor Day, he made three major rhetorical gaffes, and the campaign managers clamped down on his press contacts. He improved enough during the campaign to win handsomely, but signs remained in his first year in office that the adjustment was not yet complete, particularly on foreign policy, which suffered from the president's preemptive focus on the domestic economy. There were moments when it appeared the administration was trying to substitute loose, strident rhetoric for a clear global strategy.
In recent months, however -- with the appointment of William Clark as national security adviser and George Shultz as secretary of state -- the tone has changed dramatically, and a greater sense of responsibility and statesmanship has characterized foreign policy. And one ironic effect of improved appearance in responsibility will undoubtedly be to permit pursuit of a tougher foreign policy.
Besides reflecting his training as an actor, Reagan's changing behavior highlights two dimensions of conservative principle that frequently conflict -- one bearing on concern about substantive policy and the other emphasizing a concern for process. The interplay between them tends to encourage different positions in and out of office.
Out of office, most conservatives concentrate entirely on substance -- on specific substantive policies they would like to see enacted. They are unconcerned with the complexities of governing, with accommodating institutional and political constraints. Nor should they be, since they are themselves part of the political context within which policy-makers must make their compromises: out of office, conservatives' role is to keep up the pressure and push for the ideal -- even when a "conservative" is in the White House.
Once in office, the institutional and political constraints bring to the fore the instrumental conservative concerns about stability, order and moderation. Here principles are best served by compromise; and here, too, the actor's ability to read audiences becomes indispensable in determining what is possible.
These two concepts of conservatism necessarily conflict. In an important sense, both are conservative, and both are correct. Conservative pressure on a conservative president is one key element in the political constraints he faces; and for that reason -- to do his best by his conservative values -- he has an important stake in that pressure. The fact is, strong conservative opposition and pressure is indispensable to a president seeking to implement a conservative program. (The same is true for a liberal president and his liberal opposition.))
But moderation is also a conservative principle, and any conservative predident who forgets this abandons Burke, the acknowledged father of modern conservatism, who wrote:
"(O)pposed and conflicting interests . . . interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. . . . They make all change a matter of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations. . . .
Though there may be disagreement about how much compromise a president should make, one thing is certain: those inside will always disagree with those outside about it -- the disagreement inheres in their different roles.
In this light, there is no reason to expect Reagan's relations with his conservative constituency to improve. They may even deteriorate. The fact is, even in conflict, both are serving their conservative values. And if the conflict were to disappear, the only thing you could be sure of was that one or the other was betraying his principles.