It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the federal government and those reserved to the states or to the people . . . .
-- Ronald Reagan
Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1981
He's already won. The latest skirmishing over the budget deficit crisis in the Reagan years obscures the truth about this issue. Reagan has prevailed. He has forced Congress into a corner and compelled it, no matter how it finally acts this time, to accelerate further the changes he has wrought in national economic and political priorities.
Although members of Congress increasingly are frustrated and embittered over the economic, political and foreign policy dilemmas they now confront, there's not a prayer that they will do what many recognize as necessary in this session -- raise taxes to help reduce the deficit. They won't meaningfully alter the dramatic increase in defense expenditures achieved during Reagan's presidency, either. They will, it seems certain, cut into the only remaining area left -- domestic programs.
Which is exactly what this president had in mind all along.
Reagan's victory in shifting the budget priorities of Washington stands as one of the most significant of the modern era of American presidents. It is a classic example of how to win by losing -- or, to put it another way, of how to triumph by letting things get worse. It is crisis management in reverse -- let the crisis grow more severe and thus force the lawmakers to make unhappy and, in my view, unwise, choices.
Oh, the budget crisis he pronounced again to the country via television last week is real, all right. It has become infinitely, historically worse during his time in the White House. His very policies have caused much of the present problem.
As the deficit spirals ever upward, Reagan continues to insist that only one avenue exists to deal with it: more cuts on the domestic side of the ledger. As the latest time for congressional budget decision-making arrives, he again takes to the nation's airwaves to sound anew the old alarms.
These Reagan addresses offer a fascinating study in his brand of political leadership. They come with monotonous regularity throughout his presidency. Each time he offers virtually identical language, the same passionate warnings about the urgency of the situation, the same kinds of colored charts and graphs reflecting the latest bad deficit news, the same fervent promises to act now to end the crisis.
And they always bear the same message. Someone else is responsible for the worsening situation: past administrations, whether led by Republicans or Democrats; the "big spenders" of Capitol Hill; the privileged preserves of wicked Washington where all those slothful government bureaucrats live; rampant fraud, waste and abuse among the "puzzle palaces along the Potomac."
No matter that he's been in charge of the chicken coop for more than four years. No matter that it's his government he's talking about, his massive tax cut and big defense spending increase policies that have been implemented.
No matter that he stands as the biggest of big spenders and the greatest budget buster we've seen. No matter that it's his administration's responsibility to correct those fraud, waste and abuse horrors he continues to proclaim in the government offices over which he presides. None of this affects his never-ending theme -- or, so far, his success -- that has continued from his first day in office to the present.
From his inaugural address:
"Great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political and economic upheavals.
"You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why, then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we're not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding: We are going to begin to act, beginning today."
From his first televised address to the nation, on the economy, two weeks later:
"The federal budget is out of control, and we face runaway deficits of almost $80 billion for this budget year that ends Sept. 30. That deficit is larger than the entire federal budget in 1957, and so is the almost $80 billion we will pay in interest this year on the national debt . . . . Today the debt is $934 billion . . . . Before we reach the day when we can reduce the debt ceiling, we may in spite of our best efforts see a national debt in excess of a trillion dollars. Now, this is a figure that's literally beyond our comprehension . . . . "
Enact his program, he promised, and, presto, all the problems will dissolve. We'll have a balanced budget after three years and then a rising surplus in the federal Treasury.
Year in and out the messages have remained the same, with repeated allusions to the "magic money machines" of Washington and the rest.
There is, naturally, a notable exception: The deficit figures keep rising with geometric precision and so do those of the national debt. From that horrifying $80 billion a year deficit he spoke of in 1981, the annual deficit now runs at around $215 billion. The annual interest payments alone on the debt are now double what the total yearly deficit was when he took office. That incomprehensible national debt of nearly a trillion dollars has almost doubled in four years. It stands likely to hit three trillion by the end of this decade.
Some record for deficit-reducing.
It's been an astonishing performance and, so far, he's home free. The result has been to push the government in the direction he sought when he arrived in Washington. The question now is: How lasting will be his success?
For Reagan, the most intriguing sign of political danger ahead came in the aftermath of his speech last week. As always, he urged the public to flood the halls of Congress with messages of support for him.
Four years ago, they did. Within days after his first TV speech on the economy then, he was proudly telling reporters that the White House had counted 2,400 favorable calls, letters or telegrams from the public. There were only 43 unfavorable ones.
This time, the White House count has dropped in volume and the numbers of unfavorable, while still far in the minority, have risen substantially. Some Capitol Hill offices, as The New York Times reports, reflected far fewer calls or messages after the Reagan address. In some cases, there were as many unfavorable responses as favorable.
Can it be that the magic of our modern-day Merlin is waning? Has he gone to the well once too often? Is the public finally catching on to the act? Stay tuned, political fans. This one is developing.