Last week marked more or less the beginning of the official doctrine-making phase of the presidential campaign. In a fittingly dismal, under-reconstruction hotel hall that was either going up or coming down -- you couldn't tell -- the Democratic began the platform deliberations. For its part, the Reagan entourage flew into New York and Washington and undertook to spell out its views to a bunch of queasy editorial types and, more important, to set up some party task forces to help fashion a set of suitable stands on the issues.
I have some unhelpful observations to make on all this. I think that whatever prescriptions for future behavior the parties inscribe on their stone tablets will be, in the words of the master, Richard Nixon, wrong . . . and besides, they won't work. This is not a patronizing view. The patronizing view is that all this theology and pledge-taking and swearing on a stack of Laffer curves doesn't matter in the first place. I think it does -- especially to the poor unfortunate who happens to get elected.
Listening to the Kennedy and Carter forces warm up for their struggle over the efficacy of wage-price controls, and participating in one of the Reagan interviews the other day, it occurred to me that what all these campaigners were really setting forth was a set of doomed and defective natural laws. Typically, the campaign-year pledge has an air of scientific certainty to it, based upon hope, guess and prayer. Incantation also plays a part: this will cure that . . . this will make that happen or cease happening, whichever is desired. It doesn't matter whether the sacred "this" is economic controls, deregulation, a tax cut, disarmament or an MX missile in every garage -- the formulation is the same: this will make that happen -- period.
What presidents find out, of course, is one of three things. Either it doesn't make the desired thing happen, or it does but brings with it hideous, unexpected side effects or (most often) the president lacks the authority and clout even to start the projecat. For any of these results, or for backing off because he concludes the idea is a bad one, he will not be rewarded with sympathy or understanding, however. It will be said that he was either faithless to the party position and didn't give it a try or -- if he did and failed -- that he didn't really give it a chance to work.
Carter is waist-deep in this Big Muddy now. Some people will say it serves him right. He has always been a big one for the categorical statement, the sweeping prediction , the I-will-never oath. He suggested that a grain-sales embargo against the Soviet Union was an absolute nyet in 1976. Rightly, after the Afghanistan invasion he sought to impose one, but rather overstated and oversold what it would do. Now some are betting that before the summer is up, mindful of the famer's dissatisfaction, he will back off it -- proclaiming it, however, to achieve more things than anyone thinks it has. None of this would do a thing for his image as a man of constancy.
We asked Reagan if much of the natural-law theory he has invoked had not in fact already been tested by Carter and been proved illusory. We asked because, when you follow the prospective Republican candidate's expressions of confidence in such "innovations" on Cabinet government, decentralized decision-making deregulation of rulebound enterprises and a generally diminished role for the executive, your heart sinks. But Reagan replies -- absolutely in the tradition -- that Carter never really tried these efficacious things. So the Kennedy people say Carter hasn't given liberalism (in the form of the 1976 platform) a chance, and the Reagan people say he hasn't given conservatism (in the form of his personal pledges) a chance.
If this one-two punch decks Carter, we will end up with Reagan, and listening to him the other day I got the impression that he is, in some respects, right where Carter was four years ago: pardoxically, this man whose political strength rests on a devastating critique of the ways of the federal government has a wholly unjustified faith in its capacity to be "cured." Don't get me wrong. I think it would be wonderful if a president could fulfill the Reagan vision of a stronger defense, a huge tax cut, a balanced budget and a job for everyone -- and all this at the expense not of the poor, but principally of those wasters and mismanagers of federal revenue who are squirreled away in the bureaucracy somewhere. But when Reagan tells us about the $50 billion or whatevr it is that he plans to retrieve from the waste-machine, I can only say: lots of luck.
It was one of the entertaining ironies of our meeting with Reagan that we of the pointy-headed, Washington-based and (naturally) soft-on-Washington press were trying to tell Reagan, in effect, that the whole thing was worse than he imagined. How, we kept asking, was he going to get these curative things to happen? Well, he just was.
Reagan is full of horrible-example acnecdotes, more or less in the William Proxmire Golden Fleece Award tradition. One of his stellar ones is about how Son of Sam, the incarcerated mass murderer, is getting some type of payment from Social Security. Now, this sort of thing caused a great deal of commotion among my group when our guest had left, and there were even some who wondered whether all the terrible anecdotes were true. My own feeling was that it didn't matter; if this one or that hadn't happened, something comparable no doubt had. The point wasn't even that Social Security's financial problems were not going to be solved by getting multiple slayers off the benefit rolls. The point was that time after time Reagan revealed a faith in the straightforward, uncomplicated, almost automatic fix that seemed to me as misplaced as it was seductive.
Sooner or later, just as the Democrats are doing with characteristic turmoil and dissent, the Republicans will start engraving all of these axioms and laws that won't work as party dogma. The most the resulting document is likely to do is to divert the attention of the party itself from the really tough questions it should be addressing -- and embarrass the hell out of the candidate four years from now, if he is elected this fall.