Ronald Reagan says the Russians have got it all wrong if they think he is "trigger-happy." Ditto the Democrats if, as predicted, they try to picture him as Barry Goldwater revisited: warlike, accident-prone, dangerous. The governor and his associates are at great pains these days to rewrite the record of his earlier tough talk.
They should save their breath. And the Democrats as well -- if they really mean to try to scare us from now to November with the "trigger-happy cowboy" bit. Unlike Goldwater, who thought he had the draw on the Russians at a time of clear American nuclear superiority, the problem with Ronald Reagan is trigger-un happiness. This gunslinger isn't even sure the gun is loaded, which is not a state of mind that leads you confortably into Dodge City at high noon.
At least that's how I read not only what Reagan is saying but what the Republicans are saying about defense and foreign policy in a supposedly hard-line party platform plank crafted to the specifications of their candidate.
"Since 1977, the United States has moved from essential equivalence to inferiority in strategic nuclear forces with the Soviet Union," the platform stipulates (without a scintilla of supporting evidence). But that's not the worse of it. Note this:
"As the disparity between American and Soviet strategic nuclear forces grows over the next three years, most U.S. land-based missiles, heavy bombers and submarines in port will become vulnerable to a Soviet first-strike. Such a situation invites diplomatic blackmail and coercion of the United States by the Soviet Union during the coming decade."
Well, so it does. But more important, so will, inevitably, for at least three years as the "disparity . . . grows." True, the Reagan/Republican program calls for enormous increases in defense spending, right across the board, "to close the gap with the Soviets, and ultimately reach the position of military superiority the American people demand."
But for the three years, anyway, we are going to be militarily inferior, wide open to diplomatic blackmail, incapable of deterring the Soviet Union "in its expansionist course" and powerless to negotiate. "The potential for dangerous confrontations has increased," the platform says, adding that "Republicans will strive to resolve critical issues through peaceful negotiations.
"But we recognize that negotiations conducted from a position of military weakness can result only in further damage to American interests."
That's supposed to be a hard line? It is hard, of course, in what it says about the Carter administration's conduct of national security. The platform stops just short of charging the president with unilateral disarmament. That may be smart politics. But it is the softest sort of line in the prospect it holds out to the Soviets -- what it says about the enfeebled condition of their principal adversary during the better part of the first term of a Ronald Reagan presidency.
Whether it is the right line depends in part -- but only in part -- on whether you think the facts justify it. Obviously, it would not be possible for Reagan to achieve the massive diversion of resources toward defense spending that he is advocating -- a diversion, accompanied by tax cuts, whose social implications will touch the lives of every citizen -- without at the same time making the case that the United States is weak.
Even Carter has conceded some weakness with his own more modest proposals for increased defense spending. But he has not proclaimed American "inferiority." And while you would hardly look for that from an incumbent president running for reelection, the facts in any case are arguable.
For every defense expert in the Reagan entourage who will tell you that we are outgunned and in grave peril, you can find another in or outside the Carter administration who will argue the other side. It depends, among other things, on what intelligence you accept and how you count -- United States v. Russia, or Warsaw Pact v. NATO -- and how much weight on the Western side you give to the Communist Chinese.
What matters, in Soviet calculations, is their perception of the United States. And that's half of what's wrong with the Reagan/Republican argument -- the contribution it makes to Soviet perceptions. The other half is its will-o'-the-wispy goal of "superiority." Does anybody think the men in the Kremlin would be satisfied for long with "inferfiority"?
The real question, in short, is not whether Ronald Reagan is trigger-happy. For now, he is clearly trigger-unhappy, which may be, in its way, even more dangerous.