If you weighed just the words on Capitol Hill last week, Ronald Reagan was a big loser. But when the votes were counted, he was moving inexorably ahead.
The words came in torrents, from all directions.
Liberals marked the anniversary of passage of Reagan's first-year economic program with charges that its main result has been record unemployment. Conservatives, including former aides, claimed that Reagan was reneging on his own philosophy by slapping a sick economy with a $100 billion tax increase.
There were warnings from leading Republicans that the president was overreaching himself in seeking still higher defense spending at the likely further expense of social programs, and there were threats from Democrats of political retribution for his opposition to a freeze on nuclear weapons.
Some senators of both parties said that Reagan was also tampering with the Constitution in ways that would wreck the careful balance of the Founding Fathers.
On Tuesday, Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman, a convenient Reagan proxy, was subjected to bipartisan hazing by the Senate Budget Committee, with Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) accusing the administration of playing "slip, slide and duck" with its defense and other future spending estimates.
That same day, 33 Senate Democrats got together on a bill they said would relax the "tight-money, high-interest policy . . . the president has made his own."
On Wednesday, a carefully orchestrated series of speeches and statements from House Democrats marked the "terrible human impact of Reaganomics" one year after Congress finished its work on the president's tax and spending proposals.
This Democratic lament found an echo in a rebel meeting, involving such figures as early Reagan backer Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), former Reagan press secretary Lyn Nofziger and former domestic policy adviser Martin Anderson, designed to kill the Reagan-backed tax bill already passed by the Senate.
On Thursday, the Republican rebels went public, while in the freeze debate scores of Democrats filled the House chamber with warnings that Reagan's rearmament policies threatened the world with nuclear destruction.
But it was a week when the gap between rhetoric and reality was exceptionally wide, even by the lenient standards of Washington in the dog days of an election-year summer.
The president plainly was having to play a little more defense than he did a year ago, when he was freshly in office. On issue after issue, from unemployment and interest rates to higher consumer taxes to the bulging arms budget, his critics in both parties claimed to believe he was playing a losing hand.
But he was still winning.
The Senate reversed House rejection of a politically painful cap on future government pensions, and added $12.7 billion of domestic program cuts to the $17 billion it had taken earlier from such "sacrosanct" programs as Medicare and Medicaid. The House Ways and Means Committee has already voted for similar cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.
The Senate also passed a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, which many experts say would complicate rather than simplify management of the economy, but which Reagan a few weeks ago embraced as his own.
The Democratic-controlled House, meanwhile, which the week before, despite all its protestations, had given Reagan almost the full $177 billion defense budget he had asked, bowed to him again on Thursday, scrapping the nuclear-freeze resolution drafted by its Foreign Affairs Committee and substituting a White House alternative which was a blanket endorsement of Reagan's negotiating position.
On Wednesday, an aide to a prominent Democratic senator watched his boss vote for the Reagan-backed balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and made a comment. On Thursday, the press secretary to a Republican representative watched his man vote against the Reagan-opposed nuclear-freeze resolution, and unknowingly said almost the same thing.
What they said, in virtually identical words, was that: "When it comes down to it, they're not ready to take him head-on."
Reporters were given an unusually vivid view of this continuing hesitancy at a luncheon Thursday with a group of Republican senators. For most of an hour, criticisms of administration policy rattled around the room: the tax-bill was too tough on the middle class; the defense plans for coming years were too high; the balanced-budget amendment was too risky in its unexamined impact on the balance of powers among the branches of government and on the health of the economy.
The senators ranged from conservatives such as Mack Mattingly of Georgia and Alphonse M. D'Amato of New York to moderates like William S. Cohen of Maine and Slade Gorton of Washington.
In the course of the question-and-answer session they all found grounds for attack, none more than the one among them who is running for reelection this year, Harrison H. Schmitt of New Mexico.
But as the session drew to a close, Sen. William L. Armstrong of Colorado admonished his colleagues. "I'm distressed by the undertone of what's been said here," he said. "I think the president is doing fine. He's giving strong leadership. His popularity is coming back from the little dip early this year, and it's strong. People are hurting a little, yes, but they feel he's doing things for the good of the country, and they don't want us sandbagging him."
The room was silent, abashed. Then Gorton said, "I'm from a different wing of the party than Bill, but I want to say I agree precisely with what he has said." And the luncheon broke up.
Some pollsters endorse that view of Reagan's position in the country; others disagree. But the Democrats, who must define the choice for the Nov. 2 election, if there is to be a choice, are at a loss how to do so.
They have been uncertain ever since November, 1980, whether Reagan really has a mandate for a reversal of the Democratic welfare-state policies of the 1930s through the 1970s. But in their uncertainty they have yielded one strong point after another, always reassuring each other that they could fight on more important ground, another day.
And Reagan, who has been absolutely clear about his purpose of reducing the domestic side of the federal government by simultaneously expanding national defense spending and reducing the revenue base, has exploited the tentativeness of the opposition.
He has persuaded Congress to accept "tentative" budget-cutting targets, and then used them as benchmarks for a public judgment on whether the legislators are "responsible" or "irresponsible" in their spending votes.
Time and again he has shown the capacity to convert losing causes into symbolic victories and symbolic victories into substantive policy decisions, always narrowing the wriggle-room for those who oppose his ultimate goal.
The balanced-budget amendment is the latest and largest of those symbolic victories, powerfully reinforcing the idea that domestic spending must be reduced. Stockman signaled strongly on Tuesday that, whatever happens to that amendment, Reagan will be back in January looking for domestic program cuts that could dwarf anything seen so far.
The Democrats are plainly uncertain how to respond to this kind of single-minded challenge to the fundamental tenet of their party's philosophy for the last 50 years.
They think, as times grow hard, that the people will call on the Democrats for relief, as they did 50 years ago. They think that, but they are not sure. And so they hedge, hoping to increase their chances of survival. And each hedge opens the way for the Reagan wedge.
Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was able to get virtually all the Democratic senators to co-sponsor a bill, with little chance of passage, to redirect Federal Reserve policy and reduce interest rates.
But on the balanced-budget amendment, the Senate issue of the week, the Democrats split down the middle, opposing it only 24 to 22, with 11 of the 19 running for reelection in November, Byrd among them, taking the course of political prudence and voting "aye."
There is a theory among some Democrats on Capitol Hill that, by lying low, by criticizing Reagan's policies but not blocking them, they are saddling the Republicans with re-sponsibility for a steadily worsening economic situation.
Every time a new bit of bad news appears, like Friday's report that unemployment had reached 9.8 percent in July, they are ready with their news releases.
But the theory that these hit-and-run tactics will inspire a public repudiation of the Republicans in November was questioned by at least one Democratic congressional candidate who was in the Capitol on Thursday, conferring with party leaders.
The candidate is running in a Midwest district, hard hit by layoffs and by the farm slump, and is generally regarded as one of the most likely Democratic winners against a Republican incumbent in November.
"Do you want to know what I think?" she asked. "I think nobody's going to vote in November. They are in such despair, but they don't believe any of us will help. When you talk with them, they are polite, they are nice, but they say, 'You Democrats got us in this mess, and the Republicans just made it worse, and the hell with you.' They think all politicians are just interested in getting elected or reelected, and they have too many problems of their own to care who does and who doesn't get to play the games down here."
If that vacuum persists, there is no reason to think Reagan will not enjoy more weeks like this last one: full of criticism, full of victories.