For his political critics who pointed out that administration tax cuts had produced a string of unbalanced budgets, Ronald Reagan had an effective put-down. ''I'm not going to worry about the deficit,'' cracked the president. ''It's big enough to take care of itself.'' Implicit in that Reagan quip was the shrewd political insight that the federal deficit has never been the kind of economic issue on which American voters made their presidential choice. Maybe the stock market's attack of fidgets, quivers and shakes will change that. And if it does, the big political winners could be Sen. Bob Dole and the Democrats.
We voters always paid budget-balancing more compliments than attention. The fact is that for any economic issue to influence our vote, it must have a connect-point where it touches our daily lives.
Up till now, the deficit has never had any personal connect-point. Sure we admitted that growing deficits, especially during good economic times, were irresponsible and faintly immoral, that we were saddling the next generation with an unjust burden. But where were the skyrocketing interest rates and the runaway inflation such deficits were supposed to produce? They never showed up. The wages of fiscal sin turned out to be a 5.9 percent unemployment rate.
The unstated premise of the undeclared Dole candidacy has been A Tough Man for Tough Times. On the stump in Iowa, Dole tells GOP groups of the deficit and his own leadership: ''I'm going to make the hard choices. I'm willing to take the political heat.. . . I remember on May 10, 1985, in the U.S. Senate at 2 o'clock in the morning, by a one-vote margin, 50-49, in a Republican Senate, we terminated about a dozen federal programs, unprecedented. . . . We froze every cost-of-living adjustment on the books. We didn't cut anybody's benefits. We froze the cost-of-living adjustments for one year in military retirements, civil service, Social Security, black lung, everything.''
But up until the recent crash, times were not tough. The Dole message sounded, to some, too reminiscent of the party's theme song during 1932-1952, when the GOP lost elections but never faith in the remedy of fiscal cold showers and root-canal works.
If the voters should now decide that deficits have not produced a free brunch, if times turn tough, then a vindicated Dole would be the most logical Republican beneficiary.
Of course, really tough times in 1988 would benefit the Democrats, who have produced, with the exception of former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt and Rev. Jesse Jackson, a timid lot of candidates. We actually have a campaign in which both parties are without any specific agenda for the future. After the Reagan years, taxes have been cut and the military refinanced. The only unfinished conservative business involves the social issues, such as abortion and school prayer, which energize Pat Robertson's campaign. The liberal agenda seems to consist basically of defunding the antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua and protecting Social Security.
The 1988 Democrats resemble nothing quite so much as the ''moderate,'' ''progressive," "modern" Republicans of the early '50s. Then the Republicans, hungry for victory, accepted the premise of an activist government. Today's Democrats tacitly accept the premise of the Reagan years. There are no Democratic Marshall Plans to rescue the suburbs, no 21-point programs that call for full federal assumption of the cost of school crossing guards. The Democrats seem to cross their fingers and hold their breath, hoping they will be the remaindermen of 1988, that an electorate dissatisfied with the eight-year record of the Ins, will throw them out and the Rascals in. It just could happen.