"Don't Blame Me" seems to be the theme song of this August in Washington. After two weeks of political reporting on the road, what strikes a returning reporter is that duck-and-run has become the name of the game in this capital.
At the White House, President Reagan says the reason there are these record deficits is that Congress didn't give him all the budget cuts he asked for. His economic advisers put out their mid-year fiscal review, but then tell reporters--not for attribution--that they think it paints too rosy a picture.
On Capitol Hill, the Democrats who furnished the votes needed to pass the record--and excessive--tax cut of 1981 steadfastly refuse to furnish any votes for the needed corrective--closing some of the loopholes that were opened last year. Those same Democrats exploit the emotions of the nuclear freeze movement but acquiesce in voting every last dollar for every single weapons system on the Pentagon wish list.
At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, presidential pollster Richard Wirthlin tells reporters that the good news is that more voters blame the Democrats for the country's economic mess than blame the president. And at the other end of the avenue, the Democrats demagogue the Social Security issue while continuing to pretend that the refusal to discipline the growth of entitlement spending is unconnected to the severe cutbacks in programs that provide a lifeline for the jobless and the poor.
The explanation given for all this play-acting is that the 1982 election is only three months away, so politics dominates the agenda. But if the comments I have heard in the past month in are at all typical, the voters just aren't going to swallow the malarkey that these Washington politicians are handing out.
People are not dumb. When they see the president, at his press conference, playing the part of the helpless victim of a runaway-spending Congress, they ask: what happened to your veto pen, Mr. President? They know that Reagan has been sustained every time he has sent an appropriation bill back to Capitol Hill for trimming. And they also understand that it is Reagan --not Congress--who is threatening to break the budget discipline by reneging on the agreement for a slight slowdown in future Pentagon funds.
People are not that dumb. When they see the Democrats in the House ducking the responsibility of formulating, debating and passing a tax bill, they understand that their congressmen are playing games.
Nineteen months ago, the American people were told that Reagan, at his first Cabinet meeting, said politics was last on his agenda. Don't even think about the next election, he said. Now, he seems to think about nothing else. He dashes from one constituency group to the next--farmers, ethnics, fat-cats, blacks--as if by constant motion he could divert attention from the crushing economic pressures at home or the crises in the world.
But the Democrats are even more dangerously underestimating the voters. They are not going to win anything on Election Day by virtue of superior organization, finances or candidates; the Republicans have them outgunned most places in all three. The Democrats will win in November only if they give people reason to believe their concern is greater, their programs better.
But the Democrats' performance in Washington this summer almost defies belief. Their cynicism about their role in Congress breeds equal cynicism on the part of the voters. And that is no formula for victory.