Headlines: Job, Food, School Programs New Reagan Budget Targets And: Task Force on Intelligence Prospers To Ease Restrictions on Domestic Spying And: Ax Poised for Poverty Agency And Anti-Smoking Program And: El Salvador: Where Reagan Draws the Line And: Watt Targets Strip Mine Law And: Reagan Asks 16% Boost In Spending for Defense And: Reagan Sends Budget to Hill As 'Mandate for Change'
A mandate exists, all right, and it stands for change. But is the Reagan Revolution -- sweeping in its approach to government, sternly ideological in spirit -- the kind of change the people voted for in November.
Only a hermit could fail to be aware of the bold assult on the nature of government now under way in Washington. It represents an attempt to unravel, if not dismatle, basic functions of the federal government built up over the past half century -- and it goes far beyond the genuine public and political consensus about the need to part government spending and regain control of the government budget.
Now that the full thrust of the Reagan grand plan has taken form, two critical questions are before the country. Are citizens aware of the scope of the political revolution being proposed? If so, do they approve?
Victorious presidential candidates always claim to have received a great mandate to carry out their promises after an election. Most of their claims are false. By their nature, American campaigns result in such compromises, such attempts to be all the things to all people, that the voter's final message, if any, is highly mixed. Presidents win because the voters, in a vague sort of way, agree with the candidate's even vaguer pledges (as with John F. Kennedy, "to get the country moving again") . . . . Or because they agree that the incumbent has averted calamity (as with Woodrow Wilson, "He kept us out of the war") . . . . Or because they sense a certain trustworthiness of character arising after a period of scandal (as with Jimmy Carter, " a good and decent man") . . . . Or because they decide which candidate they distrust the least (as with so many, recently, who are judged "the lesser of evils").
Ronald Reagan's victory was no different from others in these respects. He won because of a pervasive feeling of national failures, compounded and symbolized by frustrations over the hostages in Iran, and widespread fears abour a collapsing economy. There's nothing to indicate he won because a majority of Americans agreed with his ideological pronouncements. Evidence to the contrary abounds.
A CBS/New York Times poll last month, for instance, contained these political findings: the public favors a balanced budget over more military spending. It opposes large tax cuts. It opposes cuts in Social Security, mass transit, pollution control and aid to students.
After the election, the Gallup Poll found that the American public and the president did not agree on two main campaign issues -- the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. While Reagan opposed ERA, the public endorsed it by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin, Gallup reported. And while he favored a ban on abortions except when the life of the mother is at stake, the public took the opposite view. It was strongly against banning all abortions. Gallup also says a large majority wants stricter handgun controls and favors keeping the 55 mph speed limit; by a narrow margin, the public opposes construction of more nuclear plants.
Obviously, we have an apparent conflict between public desires and presidential wishes. Reagan has defined his own mandate, and now plunges forward with skill and daring in a historic effort to turn back the political clock.
As the Democratic pollster Peter Hart says, so far Reagan has succeeded in shifting the focus of national political debate from problems of the economy to those of the government. In the process, he has created something of a stampede effect for all his all-encompasing economic and political program. It's becoming almost unpatriotic to oppose him. We all know that the government and its multiplicity of programs hasn't been working well. But that doesn't mean in agreeing with him there the public will certainly support or overlook his dramatic changes on everything from abortion and the CIA at home to greater military involvement abroad. Or does it?
Reagan's past governmental experience in Califonia may not be the best clue to his success or failure in Washington, but it is intriguing. Nearly 13 years ago the liberal Republican Ripon Society published an analysis of Reagan's approach to government and his stand on the issues that could well have been written today. It examined his early months as governor:
"Ronald Reagan has spoken frequently on the dangers of big government, the need for lowering taxes, the desirability of cutting budgets, and the importance of private initiative," it said. "He has preached these themes forcefully, illustrating his points with engaging anecdotes and well-turned phrases.
But the critique raised serious questions about his inability to match words with his performance. In domestic policies, it said Reagan has "wielded a crude meat cleaver. He has attempted dramatic budget cuts and drastic cutbacks in exisitng programs. But foolish economies have often produced greater expenditures, and many of the cutbacks have been untenable."
His record on foreign affairs then promoted even greater concern. Foreign policy is an area, it was said, in which his better instincts as a public speaker often desert him. "Usually he has a healty skepticism of 'expert advice,' but when the 'experts' happen to be right-wing military men he endorses their every word. Usually he shuns labels and strives for an approach which sounds both 'moderte' and full of 'common sense.' Not so on an issue like Vietnam, where, among the candidates, he labels himself a 'hawk' and where his approach is shrill and uncompromising."
Finally, the assesment dealt with Reagan's performance as a public figure early in his California administration:
"He is most certainly not, as some have charged, a puppet on a string, an actor who cannot think for himself, a man who should not be taken seriously. On the contrary, he has shown a capacity to make his own decisions, to write his own lines, to speak his own mind effectively. He has developed a political style that is well-suited to an age of mass media, and he has a way of stating the issues that is unfailingly newsworthy, if not new."
Still, doubt about him intruded.
"But his lack of experience in the craft of governement often shows through his polished platform style. When in the midst of an unexpected crisis he reverts to doctrine prejudices . . . . When on unaccustomed ground he lapses into a simplistic philosophy that aims at focibly repressing symptoms rather than patiently seeking cures."
Is the California past the Washington prolouge for Reagan, or do time and experience produce other findings? For that headline we must wait.