One of the impressive things about Ronald Reagan's operatives is their shrewdness in recycling strategies that have worked for them before. Evidence is found in the current propaganda campaign that might be dubbed, "Son of October Surprise."
"October Surprise I" was drummed up a year ago, on the eve of the convention that would make Reagan the Republican presidential nominee. At that point, he was ahead of President Carter in the polls, but not securely so, and there was sharp concern in the Reagan camp that Carter would exploit the power of incumbency to rescue himself from defeat.
Particularly were the Reaganites worried that Carter might try to time some foreign policy spectacular like a Middle East summit or a breakthrough in the stalled Iranian hostage talks in the weeks just before the election, thereby capturing the headlines from his challenger and refurbishing his own leadership image.
So word began coming from the Reagan headquarters that they fully expected an "October surprise" from the president. As they later acknowledged, those statements were not based on any inside knowledge, but were designed to minimize the damage from an event they could not control. And, in fact, when the last-minute flurry of hostage talks did occur on the eve of the election, the Republicans were ably to say, "We told you so."
"Son of October Surprise" was launched last week by White House chief of staff James A. Baker III. He volunteered to observation in several meetings with reporters that he expected a backlash to develop against the Reagan budget cuts this fall.
"I think you'll see some fairly strong reaction to the budget cuts when they hit the street in October or November," Baker said in a meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Post. Later, at the White House in a television interview, he reminded listeners that the president had said that curbing inflation would not be a brief or painless process. Expressing concern about the impact of the backlash on Reagan's standing and leadership, Baker said business, church and volunteer groups all would have to help ease the pain that may be caused by federal program cutbacks.
It is easy to see what is worrying the White House, but hard to judge how effective the effort to discount the reaction in advance will be. Budget-cutting has been the most popular game in Washington this winter and spring, but the effects of those cuts may not be as popular around the country this fall.
This autumn, prices of lunches in school cafeterias will go up -- and so may the number of kids crowded into a classroom. Transit fares will be higher and so will the cost of college student loans -- all because of reductions in federal subsidies. City jobs that have been filled by CETA workers will have to be financed from local taxes -- or abolished. Workers losing private jobs will have fewer unemployment benefits.
The likelihood is that many state legislatures will be in special session this fall, readjusting the budgets they are now passing, in order to cope with the 25 percent cutback Reagan is imposing on many federal grand-in-aid programs. In many states, the choice will be posed in politically cruel terms -- higher state and local taxes or a real reduction in education, public safety, health and welfare programs.
The impact of the cuts will be high-lighted in mayoral campaigns that will be taking place in many of the major cities and in the spotlighted gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia.
At just about the same time, the House and Senate will be going back over the budget ground they covered this spring, setting the final terms for fiscal 1982 spending. If the Democrats are not completely inept, they will find ways to link the Reagan budget to the "backlash" Baker is predicting at that time.
Reagan's great hope is that the recent signs of easing inflation will not prove illusory -- that the squeeze on state and local budgets will be assuaged by relief on the inflation front. But even so, the prediction of a budget backlash is a sound one.
As usual the Reagan operatives know what they are doing -- and they are doing it well.