Well Done, David Stockman

DAVID STOCKMAN'S career as Ronald Reagan's budget director was most notable not for the clear-cutting he tried to do in the federal forest, but for a kind of intellectual and moral integrity that is rarely found in national public life, and that any administration would be lucky to have. There is irony here, because Mr. Stockman's most famous moments were those he spent in or uncomfortably near the president's woodshed, when it turned out he had said very different things about policy in private from those he was spouting in public. Both inside and outside the administration, for opposite reasons, he lost some credibility in these affairs. But in the end he gained. Mr. Stockman has been one of the important truth-tellers in this administration. It is a tribute to Mr. Reagan, to whom a considerable part of that sometimes unpleasant truth was told, that he kept Mr. Stockman on.

There has always been a tension within the administration between two economic camps, the more ideological and the more conventional, the supply- siders and the budget-balancers. Mr. Stockman, a lover of theory, sounded at first as if he might be one of the former. But the budget job has its own imperatives. Mr. Stockman became a voice of relative moderation within the administration on both the defense buildup and taxes. As the deficit soared he pressed for less of the one and more of the other. He mostly lost these arguments, and in that bottom-line sense his tenure has been, if not disastrous, then surely paradoxical. His years of celebrated budget-cutting were years when the government seemed truly to lose control of the budget. But Mr. Stockman was budget director, not president.

On domestic programs, Mr. Stockman said in his first year in office that the administration would be evenhanded and cut programs of benefit to business and the middle class no less than those benefitting the poor. But it was not: the poor, and especially the working poor, were hurt most.

In this most recent budget, however, Mr. Stockman came to where he said he would be. His goal has been where possible to extract the government not just from social equations but also from the economy. The current budget would do that -- at the considerable risk of offending some of the building blocks of any future Republican majority: farmers, military retirees, the great mass of middle- class parents with children in or near college.

We have often taken issue with Mr. Stockman. But we have deep respect for the manner in which he has served the president. He'll be missed.