The first political science report cards on the Reagan presidency are beginning to come in, and the incumbent is beating his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, by an even wider margin than he did with the voters in 1980.
Papers and panels at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association here draw a picture of a Reagan White House with notably high levels of policy agreement, staff coordination and political acumen.
By contrast, the Carter administration was almost entirely lacking in the ingredients for success, according to scholars who are starting to sort through its private records.
Erwin C. Hargrove of Vanderbilt University, who is at work on a study of Carter's domestic presidency, sounded a typical note when he said today that President Reagan has created "a sense in the country that he is addressing fundamental historical questions." He said Reagan has used that advantage to give coherence to "the strategy and tactics of his presidency."
By contrast, Hargrove said, unpublished interviews by University of Virginia scholars with all key figures in the Carter White House draw a portrait of a president "who did not think strategically about the relationship between policy and politics."
"Even though he got a lot of political advice, he was reactive rather than creative in his approach," Hargrove said.
Many of the political scientists presenting papers here made it clear that their professional admiration for Reagan's skill in wielding presidential powers did not extend to his policy objectives.
Michael E. Kraft of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Norman J. Vie of Carleton College said that "Reagan's success" in changing the country's environmental policies "is particularly striking when compared to the picture drawn by students of the American presidency . . . of a 'no-win presidency' and an 'illusion of presidential government.' "
Even though they dislike many of his policies, they said, "Reagan's 'revolution' is predicated on a radical reassertion of presidential powers and prerogatives. The constraints on decision-making so prominently dissected in recent presidency scholarship have not prevented the achievement of substantial and perhaps long-lasting policy change."
Three comparative studies of decision-making in the Reagan and Carter White Houses, based on extensive interviews with senior officials of both administrations, are highly flattering to Reagan.
Charles E. Jacob of Rutgers University, who said Reagan's economic policies "are troublesome to . . . an egalitarian liberal," nonetheless credited Reagan with achieving "revolutionary change" in that area.
By contrast, he wrote of Carter: "One is led to the overriding conclusion that while the experience, administrative style and personality of this president surely did not create most of the challenges to stability, they do go a long way to explain the limited capacity to cope with these challenges."
The Rev. Colin Campbell of Georgetown University, in a study of the Cabinet's role under Carter and Reagan, said bitingly that Carter "seemed to follow sentiment more than design in setting up his White House." Carter's decision-making "was short-circuited by two failures," Campbell said.
"First, Carter, in his personal encounters with aides whom he did not know well, avoided overt conflict. Second, the advisers he trusted implicitly, mostly Georgians, demonstrated near-paranoia about political appointees not in the charmed circle and career officials."
According to Campbell, Reagan "has used his Cabinet and White House exceedingly well . . . . We should not be lulled by Reagan's inattentiveness to detail and nuances . . . . As president, Reagan has imposed exceptional discipline on his administration. Both Campbell and John H. Kessel of Ohio State University, who did his interviews with 44 members of the Reagan White House staff, found effective coordination of policy and operations among the "Big Four" of the Reagan administration, James A. Baker III, Edwin Meese III, Michael K. Deaver and William P. Clark.
Kessel, who gave questionnaires on policy preferences to most of the top Reaganites in 1982, found "the issue consensus in the Reagan White House is substantially greater" than when he asked similar questions of Carter's aides three years earlier.
Although Baker is a favorite target of conservatives outside the administration, Kessel said the chief of staff sees eye-to-eye on most questions with others. "There were no significant differences between them on defense spending or on any economic question," he said, nor with the president.
"The White House staff was not preventing President Reagan from pursuing his preferred policies," Kessel said. "Their conservatism mirrored Reagan's own."
Kessel quizzed all those he interviewed on both presidents' staffs on their dealings with others and their judgments about the influence of their colleagues. He found there is about 50 percent more internal communication within the Reagan staff than there was on the Carter staff, and said the reason "is the existence of coordinators whose counterparts did not exist in the Carter White House."
Comparing "influence scores" derived from the ratings of staff colleagues, Kessel said Clark is more powerful than Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security affairs adviser; congressional liaison chief Kenneth M. Duberstein carries more weight than Frank Moore, Carter's counterpart, and Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman more than James T. McIntyre, Carter's man.
On the other hand, in domestic policy, Stuart Eizenstat (Carter) had more sway than Edwin L. Harper (Reagan); Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Charles Schultze (Carter) outdistanced Murray Weidenbaum (Reagan); press secretary Jody Powell (Carter) outscored communications director David R. Gergen (Reagan), and public liaison chief Anne Wexler (Carter) outdistanced Elizabeth Hanford Dole (Reagan). Harper, Weidenbaum and Dole have changed jobs or have left the administration since Kessel completed his interviews last summer.