Years ago, when I was an education reporter, I went to a high school where it seemed almost none of the kids was in class. They roamed the hallways, they loitered on the lawns, or they simply didn't bother to go to school at all. Yet the principal, a nice old lady with nice blue hair, insisted her attendance was nearly 100 percent. Just to prove it, she showed me her records: there -- nearly perfect attendance.
Not until Ronald Reagan sat down recently with his economic advisers -- the keepers of his books -- has there been such a discrepancy between hope and reality. About the only difference between the president and that principal is the color of their hair. Otherwise, they are both living in dream worlds.
The president, you will remember, went through an entire presidential campaign announcing that he had no plan to deal with the budget deficit because soon there would be no budget deficit. Economic growth, which the nation would experience in abundance, would generate such tax revenues that the deficit would close by itself. It would be akin to a miracle, a wonderful thing, and maybe there would be balloons, too. Golly, only a grinch or a liberal Democrat could think otherwise.
All along, it turns out, it was the president's economic advisers who thought otherwise. While Reagan was standing tall, they were hunched over their ledgers (actually computer runs), watching the tide of red ink rise. They knew three things: the economy was not growing at a rate that could possibly make a dent in the deficit; the deficit itself was worse than anyone (but they) knew; and Congress had approved more spending than had been expected.
Lest you think that this was classified information, that the true fiscal plight of the nation was known only to David Stockman and his merry band of accountants, bear in mind that for three months Walter Mondale rode from village to town warning higher taxes were a-coming. Mondale even proposed some himself, saying it was the honest and responsible thing to do. For this, and other reasons, he went down to a landslide defeat.
Now, though, everyone in Washington but the president thinks higher taxes are coming. The budget deficit not only hasn't been reduced, but estimates of its size have grown by $20 billion in the past week alone. The figure Stockman laid before the president at a Cabinet meeting was $210 billion. To this, the president reacted in the manner of that blue-haired high school principal. He said he would not raise taxes and reportedly reached into his pocket for a copy of the 1964 speech he gave in behalf of Barry Goldwater. It called for a reduction in the size of government.
"This is what we came here to do," he reportedly said.
His spunk in the face of reality is sort of commendable. After all, who wants taxes raised? But what's not commendable is his refusal to face reality in the first place. The American political system will not permit anywhere near a $200 billion reduction in the budget. It's one thing if Reagan wants to fool himself; it's quite another thing to fool the American people. That's not what presidents are supposed to do. In Watergate parlance, it's hard to tell with Reagan exactly what he knew and when he knew it. Was he, for instance, the last person in town to know that the deficits were on the way up? Similarly, when, during the campaign, he and his spokespersons assured us that he had nothing on his mind but peace, did he know that immediately after the election his government would open up on Nicaragua, launching three military exercises. Probably. Reagan may prefer to be the president of good news only, but he is the president.
Still, even for Washington in the Reagan era, the post-election period has been weird. The president has been obsessed with things that are not there. First it was the MiG21s that were on their way to Nicaragua, and now it is the booming economy that will, like a magician saying presto, make the deficits go away. The trouble is that the deficits are real, the MiGs are not, and Reagan is in the White House for the next four years.
Color his hair blue.