You don't have to be an astute Washington political analyst, if any of us can claim such exalted state, to get the point that emerges from the political sound and fury of recent days. The next weeks promise to be unusually rancorous in the capital.
That's the message that stands out amid the rumbling and posturing and chest-thumping and talk of firing political shots across one another's bow that have marked the return of president and lawmakers since Labor Day.
No amount of political skirmishing can hide the split developing between Capitol Hill and White House. It separates them on virtually every major issue. Not for a decade, when Congress and president drew farther apart during the increasingly embittered Vietnam/Watergate days, have the battle lines between the two sides been so sharply drawn. They are even divided on the basic agenda to deal with today's issues, as congressional leaders have made repeatedly clear in statements over the past few days. For instance:
Trade and taxes, says Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., leader of the House Democrats. That's the main order of business facing the returning members of Congress -- and he views those issues far differently from his end of Pennsylvania Avenue than do the occupants of the White House at the other.
He's never seen stronger congressional pressure for trade-protection legislation, says Sen. Robert J. Dole, leader of the Senate Republicans. In so saying he, too, stakes out a public challenge to the White House.
Both warn the president that they have markedly different political priorities from his in this session of Congress. Both bluntly warn the president of trouble if he attempts to press his agenda against theirs. Speaker O'Neill says the president "doesn't give a damn on any issue out there." Majority Leader Dole pointedly says Senate Republicans now will be maintaining "a certain amount of independence" from the president and cites GOP concerns over the outcome of next year's elections.
As for Reagan, he's "ready to eat bear," The Wall Street Journal quotes one presidential aide as saying. The bear being the Congress, naturally. He's already out on the stump carving up that bear. And why not? He's enjoying "an unheard of and unprecedented postwar popularity for a president," his press secretary boasts to reporters.
If that hyperbole isn't enough, the press spokesman brandishes the presidential popularity club over Congress and warns lawmakers that the White House holds the upper hand in any battles with Capitol Hill.
"We're dealing from a position of strength," he says pugnaciously. Reagan is in "a stronger position than any other president beginning a second term since the end of World War II." And he adds:
"He didn't get to 65 points in the latest Gallup Poll with a song and a dance and a nice smile."
(Well, maybe not, but the nice smile and the charming manner haven't exactly hurt either.) But that's beside the point disclosed by even the most cursory glance at the daily headlines: A strong and indisputably popular president and a resurgent Congress are headed for what seems a harsh and inevitable collision.
Perhaps nowhere are they more irrevocably, and quite possibly fatefully, divided than over the crucial issue of protectionism.
Washington is awash in a tide of protectionist sentiment. The Democrats see the trade protection/jobs issue as a compelling political winner for them. They cite as evidence the results of the race last month in Texas' 1st Congressional District. Their candidate, Jim Chapman, defeated the GOP's Edd Hargett.
In that race, Hargett made the classic mistake of saying publicly that he didn't know what trade had to do with jobs in east Texas -- and that dum-dum remark came amid obvious problems affecting steel workers employed there. The voters knew the difference. He lost.
In the wake of that and other evidence, the Republicans nervously agree that the Democrats are onto something. Hence, the added pressure for protectionist legislation now that they have returned from their districts around the country.
In this, as in so much else, Reagan remains adamant -- and absolutely convinced he's right. And, in this at least, he's on the side of the angels and of history.
When he says that "the ghost of Smoot-Hawley the high-tariff act of the early '30s rears its ugly head in Congress," as he did in his recent radio broadcast, he's reminding his fellow citizens -- and fellow political leaders -- of the dangers that stem from protectionism.
They are as real today as they were in the Depression era that led to World War II. Nor are the political pressures to put up trade barriers any less now, and certainly the will to resist them does not appear stronger today than it was in those decades. That isn't to suggest that some practical measures aren't called for to assist American workers and industries in being better able to compete fairly with their foreign counterparts.
Obviously, this is not an entirely black-and-white issue but an exceedingly complex and difficult one. But in the long term, the pressures that produce protectionism are destructive and dangerous. Economically, they're self-defeating. The problem is, our political system has not been demonstrating a capacity to take the long view. Just the opposite: We seem to deal with crises only when they are upon us. Then we paper it over with stop-gap measures and reel on to the next problem.
What we have in the making here is a classic political dilemma. In the long term, the best policy to adopt and pursue is anti-protectionism. Yet in the short term, the best politics dictate otherwise. Thus, the crunch and the impending collision.