Just before the election, a midwestern money manager was quoted as saying, "People told me in 1964 that if I voted for Barry Goldwater, the result would be war and social upheaval. Well, I did, and that was what the American people got (under Lyndon Johnson).
"Now, they're saying that a vote for Walter Mondale is one for higher taxes and a bigger government. Well, I might vote for Mondale, and when Reagan wins, that's just what we're going to get."
That cynical remark, cited by E. F. Hutton economist Jeffrey M. Applegate, represents what may be an accurate perception of political realities. LBJ won the 1964 election, in part because he convinced the nation that it was dangerous to trust a trigger-happy Goldwater. Thereupon, having defeated Goldwater, Johnson proceeded to escalate America's involvement in the Vietnam War, with all of its ugly consequences.
Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan made effective political use of Mondale's forthright proposal to slash the deficit by raising taxes. He used the tax proposal to scare people: in today's affluent society, the last thing that the middle class (including the Yuppies) wants to think about is a tax increase.
So Reagan swore that if he were re- elected, taxes would be raised only "over my dead body." And in some of his speeches, the president echoed the Republican Party's platform pledge to cut taxes even further. At a post-election press conference, he reiterated that tax simplification would not be used to cloak a tax increase.
But in the final days of the campaign, Reagan alternated the "over my dead body" line with his earlier "last resort" formulation, which justifies a tax boost if there's no more room to cut expenditures, and the economy is still in trouble. Reliable sources say that Reagan has used the "last resort" analysis in private conver- sation as well. Vice President George Bush let it slip out that such an option is necessary -- before the White House SWAT team got to him during the campaign.
With the election now behind him, which route will President Reagan take: stick with the supply-siders, or go for a tax increase?
Martin Feldstein, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, predicted last week that Reagan would scrap his no-tax campaign promises in a second term. Feldstein envisions a Reagan tax boost disguised as a "flat tax" proposal or a "simplification" of the tax structure that lowers marginal rates while cutting out tax shelters and exemptions.
On the other hand, the American Business Conference's Jack Albertine, rumored to be in line for the CEA chairmanship, told me he thinks it "inconceivable" that Reagan would "propose or accept" a tax increase after the issue "had been so clearly drawn in the campaign." Albertine offers 5-to-1 odds against a Reagan tax increase. He thinks the economy will still be looking strong later this year and into 1985, and that will encourage the president to "test" supply-side theory that the nation can grow its way out of the deficit.
My instinct is to trust the conclusion of a well-connected Reagan supporter that although the president will not take speedy action, he will decide in the end to tackle the deficit by meas tax increase, whatever he chooses to call it. Remember that Reagan approved at least two major tax increase packages in 1982 and 1983 in response to the "establishment" center of his party on Capitol Hill, and over the shrill objections of ultra- right-wing Reaganauts.
Says this source: "Reagan will be reluctant to abandon any of the 1981 individual tax cuts, or to approve a significant surcharge on incomes, or make important changes, if any, in indexing. And he would veto such proposals if they came from Capitol Hill. But apart from those (moves), his degree of reluctance fades fast."
He lists as most likely (accompanied by further spending reduction efforts): higher taxes on the corporate side, including some alterations in accelerated depreciation allowances; some form of consumption taxes; and (possibly) a 15-to 20-cent gasoline tax.
The key fact is that the federal deficit is not likely to just go away by itself. The nation can't "grow" out of the deficit, despite such assurances from Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. Many observers, including some important Reagan administration officials, know that if the 1985 opportunity to deal with the deficit is passed up, another one won't come until 1987. By then, it may be even more painful to find a solution.