RIGHT AT this point in the four-year election cycle, politicians are about as far as they ever get from electoral constraints. The mid-term elections are over, the presidential contest has not-- quite--begun, and only a handful of states and cities have local elections. It's also just about the last time, before the 1984 presidential contest begins, that politicians can embark on long-range strategies. So if politicians face particularly difficult policy choices, and we think they do, they also face them in an environment that allows maximum room for maneuver and compromise.
That's important, because for most national politicians, reaching solutions on the major problems-- the budget, taxes, Social Security--is going to require some fancy maneuvering. To be blunt, this will have to be the season for breaking political promises. President Reagan campaigned in 1980 as the great tax-cutter and in 1982 as one who would back tax increases only as the result of a palace coup. The Democrats campaigned in 1982 as the party that would defend to the death every jot and tittle of every Social Security benefit increase scheduled for every future year.
There is no way either the president or the Democrats can keep these promises and still get the books to balance. The president cannot recommend a federal budget of 24 percent of GNP and federal taxes of 19 percent without a huge deficit. The Democrats can't maintain scheduled Social Security increases--or even the flow of Social Security checks--at current tax rates. Huge deficits will destroy any chance of recovery, and a Social Security default is simply unacceptable. Something will have to be done.
By chance or by the voters' design, we have a Congress in which each party has clear working control of one house. Solutions must be acceptable to both. Fortunately, each house has capable leadership that seems disposed toward compromise. Each side will have to give up things and break some of its promises. The tone of political discourse will be critical. If each party insists on attacking the other, or if true believers on either side prevent party leaders from working together, the atmosphere required for resolution of these difficult issues will be lacking. If, on the other hand, politicians approach their jobs in the spirit of members of a grand coalition, perhaps solutions will be found.
Which course will the White House take? In domestic affairs, the president's greatest power is to dominate public discussion and set the terms of debate. This White House does not seem to have decided yet what kind of debate it wants. The president should understand that a refusal now to acknowledge the size and importance of the deficit--a refusal to support taxes at levels needed to finance the spending Congress and the voters demand--will not simply delay resolution of fiscal issues, as happened in 1982. Such a refusal this year could create a climate in which any resolution would be impossible and in which our economic troubles could be exacerbated rather than relieved. It costs you something to break your political promises; but when those promises were improvidently made, it will cost you much more not to break them, and soon.