AWACS victory or not, this election day, the anniversary of Ronald Reagan's landslide, is a nervous time for the president's Republican supporters, an occasion more for worrying than for cheering.
On Capitol Hill the president has lost the aura of invincibility he created last spring and summer, and winning the Airborne Warning and Control System radar plane vote cannot restore it, according to members from both parties. Republican leaders now openly resist the president's economic proposals, challenge his defense procurement decisions and agonize among themselves about the 1982 elections.
Conversations with nearly two dozen Republican members and aides over the last week suggest that the new nervousness about the Reagan administration is still vague, but applies to a wide range of subjects, from the economy to foreign policy to White House operations and the quality of Reagan appointees.
This anxiety sounds familiar as Republicans enunciate it. Similar complaints were made in their day about Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter. When members of Congress begin to realize that their party leader may not be offering them foolproof political protection, nervousness follows. But when the similarity between this new anxiety and earlier attitudes toward Nixon, Ford and Carter is mentioned to one Republican in the House, he notes that none of those presidents or their parties ended up very well.
Within the Senate Republican leadership, anxiety focuses on the economy. Some who were most influential in winning the AWACS showdown are also most anxious about the coming winter and spring. "We may be headed for something like the depression," one said recently. "I wish we had better economic advice."
In recent days, most key Republican leaders of the Senate have publicly indicated their concern that the administration does not yet have a realistic plan for achieving its economic goals and righting the economy. Sens. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairmen of the Finance, Budget and Appropriations committees, have said the latest budget cuts proposed by the White House will not fly.
The Republican minority leader in the House, Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) has said the same. Sources close to the Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) have predicted poor economic conditions.
There is also nervousness about internal White House arrangements that permitted the AWACS issue to assume the proportions of a near-disaster before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. "They botched it for a couple of months," said an aide to a senior Republican senator.
"Think of the irony," he added. "The Carter administration, which was supposedly so terrible at congressional relations, won its Saudi arms vote with ease."
(In 1978, the Senate approved the first sale of F15 fighters to Saudi Arabia by 54 to 44, also after an all-out lobbying campaign against the sale by American friends of Israel.)
In some Republican quarters the language is stronger. "AWACS was a bull----, made-up issue," said one veteran of previous Republican administrations who was an ardent Reagan supporter and, last winter, an optimist about his prospects. Reagan "pays an extortionate price to redeem the incompetent, blundering work of his go-fers, and for leaving intact an entire White House apparatus that would be a disgrace to even a third-rate country," this man said.
Not surprisingly, he asked not to be identified. Direct Republican criticism of the president and his men is still rare, and many of those who voice it anonymously retain high hopes that the skills Reagan used to win the budget and tax battles last summer, and to salvage the AWACS sale last week, will help lead the administration to great successes in the future.
Nor is this uneasiness about the administration universally shared. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), for example, said after the AWACS vote that "the president's victory will be perceived by most of my constituents as something bordering on the miraculous," and he predicted a big boost for Reagan as a result.
Like many other politicians on the Hill, Lugar pointed ahead to today's gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey as important bellwethers. If Republicans win both, Lugar said, what has been perceived as an unraveling of the Reagan presidency could be sewn up "very quickly."
(Lugar did not speculate on the consequences of Democratic victories in those two states.)
But even ardent Reagan supporters like Lugar reveal some disquiet. The AWACS victory, he said, "may give the president an opportunity to think through the whole process of counseling, and how one gets into these predicaments. He may begin to look for other procedures."
"If there were bobbles," Lugar said, "at least he's been able to turn them around." Hopefully, he added, the administration can now figure out how to formulate foreign policy "more successfully."
A staunch Reagan defender in the House Republican leadership, Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R-Wyo.), said in an interview, "There's no question that there are now Republican members who are willing to criticize the White House , and there were not before."
But, Cheney added, the euphoria of last summer was bound to evaporate. No administration could sustain such a winning record, said the man who was Ford's chief of staff in the White House. "On the whole, compared to the starts of recent administrations, they're in damn good shape."
But farther along, Cheney's concerns emerged. For example: "I'd love to see a good, thorough, critical review by this administration of the way we spend our defense dollars" as part of an effort to hold down spending in ways that do not mean just slicing away at discretionary, non-defense federal programs--an approach that "simply will not work."
"I don't think there's any question but that there have been some surprises" in the economy, Cheney said. "It's clear there are going to have to be some midterm corrections" in the administration's policies, he added, predicting either tax increases, a deferral in the goal of a balanced budget by 1984 or cuts in entitlement programs including Social Security.
In nearly two dozen interviews with top Republicans for this article, not one had a word of praise for the administration's foreign policy machinery, and many criticized it sharply, usually "on background." One Republican member of the House familiar with foreign policy issues said of Reagan: "He's going to be faced with some very, very serious problems in foreign policy, and AWACS was a warning."
The same man said, "I worry that Reagan isn't spending as much time on foreign policy as he should, and I'm surprised that he doesn't really seem interested in it."
A source in the Senate leadership said the top White House aide responsible for foreign policy matters, counselor Edwin Meese III, "doesn't know enough, and just doesn't work hard enough."
"There's something wrong," this source said, "when the president's chief assistant takes long weekends in California" the way Meese sometimes does. "He just doesn't put in the hours that are necessary."
Much of the criticism is aimed at the lack of coordination among administration officials involved in national security policy, and at the weakening of the National Security Council staff in the White House.
But some is also substantive.
Said an aide to a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "I can't think of any member of the panel who is comfortable with any regional policy this administration is pursuing. The hard-liners are upset because the administration seems to be going back and forth on the Soviet Union--a lot of grain sold to the Soviets , a lot of heavy anti-Soviet rhetoric, and then deploying a whole new generation of ICBMs the MX missile is the same old vulnerable holes.
"The moderate and liberal members are concerned that the Europeans are being driven up the wall, and that the administration has no interest in arms control. . . . There is no enthusiasm here--or confidence that these people are wired together."
According to this man and other Senate sources, Republican members speaking privately are openly contemptuous of National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, and repeatedly express reservations about Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. None of these three have enthusiastic Republican support in Congress, a fact that complicates the administration's life considerably, Republican sources say.
Congressional reservations about Reagan foreign policy have been openly demonstrated. The Senate imposed new conditions on aid to Pakistan, for example, that the White House did not want. And committees in both Houses, with support of key Republican members, have begun toying with the administration's program for modernizing U.S. strategic forces, a program the administration itself is continually modifying in the face of new technical questions and congressional skepticism.
But foreign and defense policy concerns seem confined to a relatively small number of members who follow those subjects. It is the economy that scares more Republican politicians, not least because the administration now looks a little uncertain about where it will go next.
Economic policy "is in total disarray," said a Republican economist in Washington with close ties to the business community. "Congress will panic in February," he predicted, when the current recession pushes unemployment past 8 1/2 percent.
Several members of Congress predicted the "panic" could come earlier, particularly if there are any dire events in the economy. There is nervous talk on Capitol Hill about Chrysler and International Harvester, two companies perched on the edge of bankruptcy, and about the savings banks. One, the Greenwich in New York, is near insolvency and up for sale despite its $2 billion in deposits.
On top of this, some politicians see ominous signs in the opinion polls, which show Reagan is a more divisive president, with higher negative ratings, than any recent chief executive at this stage of his term. Reagan's own pollster, Richard Wirthlin, admitted recently that Reagan is having trouble staying close to the blue-collar "weak Democrats" who were so important to his election victory a year ago.
But there is also optimism to be found among Republicans, and not just in the Reagan family.
Alan Greenspan, for one, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Ford administration, says the financial markets are too pessimistic about the prospects for additional budget cuts. If the White House gets more cuts out of Congress now, Greenspan predicted, Wall Street will be impressed, "inflationary expectations" will fall and the "inflation premium" that is holding interest rates 5 or 6 points above the basic inflation rate will shrink.
One problem with Greenspan's forecast is that the White House does not quite believe it. "We're going to have some pretty rocky economic times ahead of us," a senior White House economist said last week. "The chances of higher interest rates before the end of the year are good."