Dr. Ronald Reagan paid a House call the other night.
He journeyed to Capitol Hill to have a look at the state of the union, which is a bit sickly due to a form of anemia caused by 9.5 million unemployed.
But Dr. Reagan, who has the best bedside manner in the business, said yes, things are tough, but they would have been worse if he hadn't taken the case.
He knows the patient feels rotten, particularly if the mortgage has been foreclosed and the jobless benefits have run out. And what is he going to do about it? Well, he is going to renovate the government hospital. It will take 10 years but, when it's over, the patient will be cured not only of anemia but of an affliction he didn't even know he had--the dread federal bloat.
Everyone knows what renovation means and how long it takes. The patient may find the whole thing--the banging, the hammering, the arguments--extremely aggravating. But the doctor is plainly counting on it to divert the sick. Watching the workmen, inhaling the plaster dust, the patient may have his mind taken off his present pains.
That seems to be what Dr. Reagan is counting on.
He has no intention of changing the medication he prescribed a year ago. So far, the patient has not responded to heavy doses of tax cuts and reduced government spending, and he is still waiting for the private-sector miracle drug, voluntarism.
The patient is somewhat bewildered. He thought he needed a job, not a new federalism. He is being reminded, by 100th birthday observances, of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who built the big hospital on the Potomac 50 years ago and thought the way to heal the sick was to treat what ails them.
But Dr. Reagan, although he professes greatly to admire FDR, says there's a better way.
The people inside the House chamber listened attentively to the diagnosis but seemed not entirely convinced. Most members of Congress have just been in their home districts hearing the moans of their constituents. None of them was beset by voters panting for the new federalism.
Dr. Reagan got a warm reception. He was cheered into the chamber and clapped out. But the applause was strongest and longest, not for his "new" ideas, which he has been peddling for years, but for the individuals whom the doctor pointed out as proof that the nation, despite its pallor and listlessness, is basically in terrific shape.
When he named Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, when he named Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), the former prisoner of war who said "God Bless America" upon being repatriated, they responded very well.
They responded best when he named Lenny Skutnik of the Congressional Budget Office, who on the occasion of the Air Florida plane crash jumped into the icy Potomac and saved a woman from drowning. They rose to their feet and saluted young Skutnik, who sat beside the First Lady.
But hero worship has its limits. California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. said it was all very well to leave the federal government free, as the president said, to worry about "arms control, not potholes," but the first order of business would be to train and retrain workers who could revive U.S. industry to the point where it could compete with the Japanese. Federal training programs have been slashed in the great drive toward self-reliance.
Brown reminded listeners that Reagan as governor of California had turned over "responsibilities" to ever smaller entities, from the state to the cities, from cities to towns, an adventure that led to Proposition 13 and reduced services.
Dr. Reagan announced that he is looking forward to turning over his practice to states and local officials who, according to him, have improved wonderfully in the last 20 years. Some citizens, who know them better, wonder if these virtuous folks will spend the money raised from their new taxing powers, along with their allowance from a federal trust fund, on anything other than new roads.
On the day after the doctor's visit, many Democrats took refuge in marveling at Dr. Reagan's wonderful performance and his smooth delivery. It was their way of saying they have no alternative.
The unemployed auto worker may have been less impressed by the president's commercial for the new federalism. He is not looking 10 years down the road at the abstraction of a remodeled government. He's worried about bread in the morning.
Hearing Dr. Reagan discourse on "a mandatory pass-through of part of these funds to local governments" is not something that comforts a person who is wondering about his credit at the corner grocery. Possibly, listening to Reagan, he got lonesome for FDR.
Roosevelt didn't talk about what he was going to do for government. He talked about what he was going to do for people.