Within the Reagan administration there are two major schools of thought about budget director David Stockman. One wonders why he wasn't fired back in 1981 when he confessed his doubts about his president's economic program to journalist William Greider. The other wonders why, diminished in impact, he chooses to stay on working away at his tables and charts in relative obscurity.
This controversy is re-ignited when, as now, the spotlight returns to Stockman helping the administration go through the increasingly embarrassing ritual of presenting its budget for the coming fiscal year. He is observed dutifully going through the now familiar stages of budget preparation and justification.
In the first stage Stockman prepares tables -- of dazzling design -- highlighting causes of and remedies for the deficit problem. The purpose of the tables is to convince the president of the horrendous dimensions of the problem and get him thinking about solutions that might seem reasonable to Congress and the public.
Undiscouraged by scant progress, Stockman proceeds to stage two: preparation of a detailed budget that, through a combination of optimistic assumptions and unthinkable proposals, appears to deal, at least in small measure, with the coming deficits.
In the third and final stage he negotiates a compromise more or less acceptable to a Congress that has become increasingly frantic for a deficit solution and to a president who reverts comfortably to the notion that the whole problem would go away if only Congress would go along with his ideas.
At the moment we are somewhere near the beginning of Stage Two.
The most obvious explanation for Stockman's persistence is that he recognizes that, among White House advisers, he is best able to tolerate the hard truths that must be faced in a serious assault on the deficit. But, curiously, Stockman's commitment may no longer be helpful to his cause. Recent comment from opinion makers all along the political spectrum suggests that he has come to personify not the solution to the budget deficit, but the problem itself.
To traditional liberals, Stockman is the chosen instrument for Ronald Reagan's dismantling of social and regulatory programs. But to conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich, Stockman has become "the greatest obstacle to a successful revolution from the Liberal Welfare State to an Opportunity Society." To the supply-siders of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, he is at the service of those narrow-minded traditionalists in the Senate who -- for obscure, self-serving reasons -- want to knock the economy off a path of limitless growth by raising taxes. To political cartoonists all over he is "the grinch who stole Christmas."
These unflattering characterizations mightn't be of concern to anyone but Stockman, his friends and his family if they did not feed a more sinister suspicion. This is the belief -- held, I know, by many genuinely concerned citizens and, I suspect, by the president himself -- that the OMB director isn't really coming clean.
Surely the problem isn't all that difficult, the reasoning goes. Surely, hidden away in Mr. Stockman's tables is a way to get rid of the deficit without doing nasty things like raising taxes, shifting burdens to states and localities, cutting defense contracts, hurting farmers, old people, students or the handicapped or slowing down environmental cleanup or law enforcement. If there's not a single $200 billion item marked "fraud, waste and abuse," then at least there are ways -- maybe even 2,478 ways -- that the savings could be found. Why doesn't Mr. Stockman 'fess up?
The truth, however, is that there is no miracle cure. Only hard choices that, as the budget total approaches the magic $1 trillion mark, become increasingly easy to describe. Essentially the budget is made up of four parts: defense, absorbing 29 percent or roughly $290 billion; Social Security and Medicare consuming nearly the same amount; interest on the debt which has soared in recent years to an annual $150 billion obligation; and everything else being paid for out of the final 27 percent -- or about $270 billion.
What about welfare cheats? Throw all the mothers and children off the rolls, truly needy or not, and you've saved $9 billion. Where will you get the other $205 billion or more that, according to current administration estimates, would be needed to balance the budget? If you won't curb Pentagon spending or Social Security and you won't raise taxes, you'll have to close down pretty much everything else except the White House, Congress, the courts and the Washington Monument.
This is a straightforward analysis, but it's not pleasant to accept. It's especially unpleasant if you're a president who has just won a smashing victory at the polls while telling people there are only blue skies and smooth sailing ahead. Or if you're the people who believed that message. It's much easier to dismiss the details and harbor dark thoughts about David Stockman. Scapegoats can provide a convenient excuse for ignoring hard facts.