President Reagan offered the Democrats a Gulf of Tonkin resolution on the budget. If they will fork over their hottest campaign issue, Social Security cutbacks, he will allow them to join in presenting to the country a "balanced, bipartisan economic program" that could resolve an economic crisis he has yet to say exists.
After thinking it over for almost 24 hours, the speaker of the House decided yesterday that it was not a fair bargain.
In the theatrical sense, the war of nerves between a Republican president, whose budget was rejected by his own party, and a Democratic speaker, whom he has called upon to rewrite it, is not really a fair fight.
The president learned how to display his best profile on the back lots of Hollywood. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. picked up what little he knows on the street corners of North Cambridge, Mass., which is not the same thing, and which doesn't help much when you're up against a glossy charmer who accuses you of being a roadblock for not helping him to correct his own mistakes.
Tuesday morning, as the Republican leadership gathered, the president instructed one of his press secretaries to issue a call for bipartisanship.
"We need to stand before the people shoulder to shoulder," said Larry Speakes, quoting Reagan.
Later in the afternoon, in a spectacular Rose Garden setting, with a cascade of snowy apple blossoms over his shoulder, the trim and glossy president asked the Democrats to follow him "to instill confidence in the people and the money market." To emphasize how conciliatory he is, Reagan reported that he had called O'Neill in the morning to say he was "personally prepared to go the extra mile."
On Capitol Hill, O'Neill and his staff watched the smash show live on television, and went into shock and seclusion. Some time later, in the hackneyed precincts of the House TV-radio gallery, with no blossoms as a backdrop, the speaker, looking as shaggy and bulky as ever, responded to what he wished Reagan had said.
O'Neill says he wants Reagan to admit that his economic programs have failed. So, for the home-viewing audience, he said the president was admitting it.
"He has admitted the need for change."
Actually, the president has done no such thing.
His lieutenants in the Republican leadership have hinted that alterations can be made. But they are talking about a Republican surtax in exchange for a cap on cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security payments and token nicks in the defense budget in consideration for more social slashes.
By mid-afternoon yesterday, as he was preparing to escort Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to the House chamber to speak at a joint session of Congress, O'Neill had sufficiently recovered to tell reporters what he should have said 24 hours earlier.
He emerged from a meeting with members of the Steering and Policy Committee with a new script. He read a line that Johnny Carson might have been willing to use: "President Reagan proved yesterday that he was willing to walk a mile--for a camera. He has yet to prove he is willing to walk a mile for a compromise."
O'Neill belatedly pointed out that the president "must come foward with some specifics."
"Mr. President," he read, "we are waiting."
The president wants a budget, but he also wants to placate his supply-siders, who keep insisting that there is nothing wrong with his economic approach that time will not cure.
For the last weeks, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III has been dashing around town to secret meetings aimed at producing emergency remedies for an emergency that the president suggests has been created only by the Democrats' stubborn refusal to produce an alternative budget. The president has announced that he has been on the sidelines.
The Republicans obligingly have promoted the notion that Tip O'Neill is really president and that Ronald Reagan is sitting outside his door waiting for him to make up his mind.
Says Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee: "Jim Baker is fabulous. He has been trying to orchestrate the cover-up of their own problems and put it on the lap of the Democrats. When Democrats turned down Jimmy Carter's budget, he submitted another one. That's what Reagan ought to do."
But O'Neill has a split in his party, too. When Reagan called, O'Neill warned him that he does not have "a magic wand." It was his way of saying that he has Democrats--and not just "Boll Weevils"--who believe that the way for Democrats to win in November is to be like Republicans: to court business and urge sacrifice on the poor. They panic at the thought of bucking the charmer in the White House.
It's a political or an economic crisis, depending on which way you look at it. And it's a game that can't start until the president shows some cards.