The White House is trying to rid itself of the albatross of the Social Security issue through a repositioning that started as an accident and became a strategy.
In the short run, the administration will stand behind the budget compromise offered by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) with its politically troublesome provision for future "savings" of $40 billion in Social Security.
In the long run, members of the White House legislative strategy group who gather each day around the table of chief of staff James A. Baker III look with increasing friendliness on the determination of House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) to make no reduction, actual or prospective, in Social Security no matter what happens to the budget deficit.
"Nobody's mad at Michel," one White House adviser said at week's end. Another, going further, said Michel's position could become "the salvation" of the White House on the issue that has proved most damaging to the president.
But this salvation, if it comes, will have been achieved most improbably. The legislative strategy group knew that Reagan was being hurt by his embrace of the Domenici plan, with its unspecified future reductions in Social Security that many believe will come from cost-of-living increases in 1983. However, no one wanted to be the first to pull the rug out from under Domenici and ruin White House chances of getting the budget out of the Senate.
Michel came along at the right time, responding to a series of over-interpreted political signals that began with the president himself.
Last Tuesday, Reagan was attending to leftover business that included a telephone call to conservative Democrat Phil Gramm, who 10 days earlier had defeated a liberal challenger in his Texas congressional district. During their conversation, Gramm told the president that the House could make additional cuts in the Senate budget committee's version of the budget bill.
Ever the optimist, Reagan became convinced that the Republican "Boll Weevil" coalition of 1981 was alive and well again in the House. Immediately after the phone call, he recounted his conversation to business leaders who had been brought to the White House to serve as cheerleaders for his budget. They interpreted the president's praise of Gramm as a signal that a new "bipartisan compromise" had been born.
When the business leaders left the White House, they told waiting reporters about the new Gramm plan. A wire service account of Reagan's seeming appeasement of the "Boll Weevils" reached Michel just as he was meeting with dissident "Gypsy Moth" representatives who opposed further reductions in domestic spending, especially Social Security cuts.
Michel's subsequent opposition to any Social Security cuts caught the White House by surprise but not unhappily.
"We can't live with the Social Security issue, and the sooner that a Republican congressional leader puts it off limits the better," one adviser said. "It's the issue that drives the engine of the argument that the president is unfair."
Another repositioning has occurred on the issue of "quiet diplomacy," the former code words for the way the administration dealt with right-wing dictators in Latin America whose friendship it wanted to keep.
Last week, the president used that term in another context when he expressed his belief in "quiet diplomacy" at a luncheon meeting with Soviet dissidents. Because the luncheon coincided with the peace offensive Reagan is trying to wage around his nuclear arms reduction proposal, the influential but rarely visible national security adviser, William P. Clark, decided it would be best to keep the transcript of the luncheon confidential and to cancel a "photo opportunity" that would have shown Reagan posing with the dissidents. The president agreed.
Unfortunately, after a lifetime of one-liners, Reagan finds it difficult to maintain his new diplomatic perspective on the stump. Reagan's advisers were unable to restrain him from a series of anti-Brezhnev quips in his speeches last week. The president also quoted premier Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in his arms control speech at Eureka College, making it seem a little silly for him to go out of his way to avoid being seen with a group of Sakharov's supporters two days later.
Reagan was prepared to defend his old crony, Attorney General William French Smith, at Thursday's news conference on the issue of Smith's extensive income tax deductions. The president was going to say that Smith acted on the advice of counsel and was prepared to give the money back if the Internal Revenue Service ruled against him. To the surprise of the president and his staff, the question never came up.
The White House will devote rhetorical energies this week to the improbable constitutional "balanced budget" amendment that would make it more difficult for the federal government to engage in deficit spending. Look for an independent committee to promote the effort and budget director David A. Stockman to testify on its behalf on Capitol Hill.