There is much speculation about whether Ronald Reagan will run again. If he does, he will have some considerable political strengths --and these have been very much in evidence in recent days. A brief catalogue of what Reagan has going for him follows:
1. The economy.
Just a minute, you--or a Democratic strategist--might say, how in the heck is the economy an asset? We've still got double-digit unemployment and $200 billion deficits as far as the eye can see. Just as soon as there are flickers of a return to prosperity, interest rates start rising again. The administration got most of its economic program passed in 1981, and it has patently failed to do what was promised: it may have cut inflation, but rather than producing economic growth, it knocked the economy flat for two more years. On top of that, major parts of the country--with maybe 75 electoral votes --seem to have sustained permanent economic damage. Is that a reelection platform?
It may be, if you ask the further question: compared to what? Washington analysts are used to evaluating an administration's economic performance by comparing it to a standard of perfection: zero inflation, 4 percent unemployment, 7 percent economic growth. Voters may be more realistic. They were willing to give Richard Nixon a second term in 1972 on the basis of economic numbers that wouldn't have seemed very impressive in 1964. The key seems to be not performance in some absolute sense but whether the economy seems to be moving in the right direction, and whether the nation's economic problems seem to be under control.
The Carter administration suffered terribly in 1979 and 1980 because it seemed to most Americans that inflation was wildly out of control; they were willing to adopt quite a drastic remedy--hiring a former actor as president-- on the chance some other policies could bring it under control. In contrast, in 1964 and 1972 voters had the sense that things were moving in the right direction and under control.
There has been a definite rise of perhaps 5 or 10 percent in President Reagan's job ratings this spring, a rise coinciding with the upturn in the economy. But there has been a much larger surge in consumer confidence. The University of Michigan survey shows that more families expect their financial condition to improve over the next year than at any other time in a decade; and although this is in part a commentary on the sluggishness of recent economic growth, it also suggests an electorate thinking on a compared-to-what basis. Of course, there's lots of time for this trend to change, and if the economy seems to be moving downward in 1984, that will cause problems, to say the least, for a Reagan candidacy.
What has Reagan done to deserve such a surge in consumer confidence? He at least appears to have brought things under control. His policies do seem to have held down inflation-- at a high price, to be sure--but we no longer have the sense we did in 1979 that things were careening out of control. Unemployment as well seems to have peaked. The administration has been preserved against the greatest possible excesses of its policies by its political situation: the moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress are likely to hold defense spending and the deficit down far below the level Reagan recommended. Reagan may be able to hold domestic spending down a little below what Congress would prefer, which leaves only his stated unwillingness to support tax increases as a deficit-augmenting trend. And in 1982, first on the Dole bill and then on the gas tax, he showed his willingness to bend on tax issues.
What once would have seemed an unsatisfactory economic situation may not prevent the reelection of Ronald Reagan because the old political rules--especially the one saying that, in times of recession, voters favor parties of the left--no longer seem to apply. The Christian Democrats in West Germany won this spring, and the Conservatives in Britain seem almost sure to win in 1983--both despite record unemployment, and with fewer signs of recovery than in the United States.
Even in the 1982 elections here, Democrats failed to make the kind of gains they used to make routinely in recession years in recession- sensitive states like Indiana and Iowa, and they almost lost the governorships of two of the most pro-big-government states, New York and Michigan, to supply-side conservatives. The 1970s evidently taught voters that the Democrats no longer have a sure cure for recession nor the Republicans for inflation. And what is their alternative today? A tax increase (which a reelected Reagan administration would probably support anyway), more stimulative policy (which might risk high inflation), an industrial policy (which no one can predict). None of the Democratic candidates is talking about massive jobs programs, guaranteed annual incomes or even national health insurance--the big-government Democratic panaceas of the 1970s. If there is just a marginal difference between the parties, why not keep in a president who seems to have things under control?
2. Foreign policy.
If Reagan is reelected, the major turning point may turn out to be the MX missile vote last week. This has given the administration a new weapons system it wanted, but the vote has also helped to calm the fears that many people have about the administration's bellicose disposition. These fears were aroused by Reagan's long record on foreign policy issues and by inflammatory statements in the administration's first year in office. Ever since, the president has had to try to calm voters and persuade them that he will not unduly risk war.
You can overstate the unpopularity of his policies in this area. Polls say most Americans think Caspar Weinberger's defense budget is excessive, but there is a strong consensus for what are, historically, large defense spending increases. The nuclear freeze movement showed genuine unease over Reagan policies; yet in California, the only state where a freeze referendum met genuine opposition, it passed by only a 52-48 margin. There is unease over administration policy in Central America. Yet most Democrats hesitate to recommend complete abandonment of the government of El Salvador, and almost no one clings to the dream that Nicaragua's Sandinistas would be our friends if we would just be a little nicer to them.
But the administration has not been free to indulge its own fondest wishes. In foreign affairs, as on economic policy, it has been disciplined by the need to maintain support in a Senate where skeptical Republicans hold critical votes and in a House controlled by Democrats. The opposition has enough strength to pass a symbolic nuclear freeze resolution in the House, though only after harrying tactics by Republicans and some Democrats pointed up the weaknesses of the freeze as a practical policy. The Scowcroft Commission recommendations for the MX could not have passed without support from liberal House Democrats, like Les Aspin and Albert Gore Jr., and moderate Republicans. To get that support, the administration had to promise to pursue arms control negotiations more vigorously than it has hitherto. Of course, that promise is not easy to enforce. But if there is one thing that could cinch reelection for Ronald Reagan, it is an arms control agreement with the Soviets. That would vindicate his assertive foreign policy and at the same time assuage the fears that he would lead us into war.
3. A president in command.
If you are running a president for reelection, you want him to seem in command of events, not at their mercy. Challenger candidates can win by railing against things as they are. But incumbents must persuade people they are making things better. Alibis won't wash: as 1980 showed, voters have little sympathy for a president who says he has been hobbled by a national malaise or victimized by a terrorist government in Iran. The policy successes of the past six months show President Reagan in command of events. He has gotten the gas tax increase he called for in December--despite the conventional wisdom, which has insisted for a decade that a gas tax increase is political suicide. He got the Social Security reform package through Congress, and on the one major issue in contention there prevailed by getting the retirement age raised. He seems to be getting most of his Central America policy through a skeptical Congress, except for American support of armed rebels in Nicaragua. He got the MX missile project through.
It can be argued that others did more than the president on each of these issues. But he still played significant roles in each. On two of them, commissions he set up--the Greenspan Commission on Social Security, the Scowcroft Commission on the MX--played key roles. The creation of the former, back in the fall of 1981, showed especially good foresight; it was a mechanism to get the Democrats on board a Social Security compromise, and it worked after the Democrats got their mileage out of the issue in the 1982 campaign. The gas tax was a long-term project of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, who did the groundwork; Reagan supported it at the last minute, after Howard Baker and Tip O'Neill really insured its passage. On all these measures, the administration was helped by Speaker O'Neill's willingness to schedule prompt votes and distaste for obstructive tactics and by the adroitness of the Senate Republican leadership. But the president was also adroit himself. He got support from key congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans on each of these issues even as he was fighting them on others.
He also showed the capacity, not so apparent in his first year in office, to concentrate effectively on more than one issue at a time. In 1981, the administration concentrated on the budget and tax issues and, while successful on them, missed many chances to advance its positions on other issues. In 1983, the administration, while able to do nothing more than deadlock the budget and tax issues, has nonetheless made progress on others. This ability to con- centrate on several issues, to establish a sense of command over them, is especially important for a president who will be 73 years old in November 1984 and whose work day is notoriously short and attention span reportedly limited.
What's odd about all this is that, if Ronald Reagan is reelected in 1984, it will not be for the same reasons he was elected in 1980. He won then because he stood for cutting back government domestically and for a more assertive foreign policy. He has made some progress in both directions. But if he is reelected, it will not mean that voters want him to move further in those directions; on the contrary, it will be because they are convinced that he's not likely to move much more. His strength as a challenger candidate was as an articulate critic of the system; his strength as an incumbent is as a man reasonably well in command of what is a grand coalition, multi-party government. That's why it's hard to see a Reagan reelection victory resulting in the kind of Republican gains we saw in 1980, and why it's entirely possible that voters could reelect Reagan and at the same time hand the Senate back to the Democrats.
We have had a string of elections now where challenger candidates have come into office by railing against things as they are and promising great changes; and then, once in office, they have found a political system, exquisitely sensitive to public opinion, that has prevented them from making changes as vast as they envisioned. The reason is that, underneath all our complaints, we recognize that we have a prosperous, democratic, tolerant country--one whose basic institutions work pretty well.
Ronald Reagan may turn out to be the lucky incumbent--the one who, unlike Gerald Ford or Jimmy Casirter, may be able to capitalize on the positive feelings Americans have about the system, feelings that lie underneath the surface negative tone of our politics. Having given the Democratic critics of the system their chance during the Carter years and the Republican critics of the system their chance during the first Reagan years, voters may decide that they prefer the kind of coalition government we have had the last six months, and would prefer to keep Ronald Reagan, rather than his Democratic opponent, in charge of it.