Soon it will make no political difference what Ronald Reagan decides on budgets or deficits or inter-fund borrowing. Serious political damage has already been done to the president. Weekly, more and more of his constituents view the president as an out-of-touch public man who, if he would just heed the wise counsel of his loyal staffers, would immediately change his economic policies.
Whether Reagan is such a hapless soul or, as others would argue, his administration's sole surviving Reaganite, will certainly be resolved by this time in the next century.
What can be known now are the identities of the culprits who have portrayed the president as some sort of dotty ideologue who is intractable and not very bright. The Democrats would love to take credit for the job done on Reagan. But they cannot. The unfavorable picture of Ronald Reagan has been created and developed by Ronald Reagan's own advisers; the ultimate responsibility, because every administration is eventually a reflection of the president who leads it, is Reagan's.
By allowing the uninterrupted flood of damaging leaks, which have the cumulative impression of depicting the president as weak, Reagan has committed political hari-kari on the installment plan.
Only ungrateful journalists disparage leaks, which those lucky enough to receive them prefer to call "scoops." Leaks are helpful for gauging the public or congressional reaction to a proposed policy without formally introducing it. Leaks can be especially helpful in getting published unflattering information about one's political opponents or even colleagues.
But the present case is quite different and probably without precedent. Whether the president's policies are right is not the issue. The president is being daily denigrated by his appointees on both sides of the policy debate. It is almost as though these Reagan appointees, who provide us hourly with tasty insider stuff about the president's indecisiveness or lack of comprehension, believe that the only way to "save" the president is to "destroy" him politically.
Ronald Reagan is a bright man. What does he think when he reads the latest bulletin (co-authored by his advisers without attribution) announcing that nobody in the country agrees with the president's economic policies. It is no tribute to the president's managerial abilities to watch his own staff seeking to get his attention, and their way, on policy matters through leaks that lampoon the president.
Reagan won big in 1980 because he presented, unlike the incumbent, a clear and definite vision of the America he sought. His philosophical and political instincts were then in harmony with a majority of Americans.
Reagan was seen and supported as bold and decisive. Today he is seen as neither. Ronald Reagan spoke movingly about public questions in personal terms. Now his speeches are cluttered with charts and graphs and statistics. Statistics constitute neither a program nor a vision. What is missing is the big picture of what this administration wants to achieve to improve America.
While a Reagan presidency could survive bad economic news, the Reagan presidency cannot survive either without the president's vision of what he wants to accomplish or with the whispered slander of the president from his own appointees.
The unworkable White House troika was the president's idea. He ignored the evidence that it was not working and that internal tensions had gone public. But now his presidency hangs in the balance. He alone can make the policy and personnel changes necessary to stop the political damage and save his political "keister." He must involve himself in his presidency now or watch himself be "Carterized."