On Tuesday at the White House, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said words the president scarcely ever hears: "You can't have it both ways."
The president became, according to eyewitnesses, "visibly angry."
The subject was the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings amendment to the debt-limit bill, a curious contrivance that takes the blame, although not the pain, out of budget-cutting and deficit-reduction. Reagan unwarily embraced Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, apparently not having read the large print, which states that defense spending, the only kind he really cares about, would be on the block.
Reagan, who will not face facts even when they are called to his attention, would not have it. He informed the leadership group that he is for Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and for the defense increases guaranteed him by the "oak-tree" formula, under which he got no increase this year but 3 percent in the next two years.
The lawmakers explained to him that Gramm-Rudman-Hollings would supersede oak-tree.
Congress would like to avoid a showdown on deficits as much as Reagan wishes he could skip Geneva.
There has been talk of a debt-limit extension to save Reagan the excruciating embarrassment of going to Geneva as a deadbeat. What if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev taunted him for pauperism?
Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and the summit are now wrapped around each other. Almost every recent event, except the visit of the prince and princess of Wales, is viewed from the vantage point of whether it "undercuts" the president at the summit.
He's going there, however, with the same wrong information, the same insistence on having both, that has complicated consideration of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings.
No one, it seems, has told him to his face that as regards arms control and "Star Wars," he can't have both.
The optimists think he does and that he is using the defensive shield, which the Soviets find so offensive, as a crowbar to exact concessions from the other side of the table. The pessimists think that he is committed to a high-tech, no-hands system that he does not understand but will never abandon because it permits him to talk about peace without actually making it.
To the foreign correspondents paraded through the Oval Office, he has said many contradictory, seemingly frivolous things. Last week, he was talking to Soviets about "sharing" Star Wars with them. This week, to a group of Europeans, he said that we would sell it to Moscow "at cost."
Such statements give a sinking feeling that Reagan is off to the summit without the slightest idea of what to do when he gets there.
He obviously hates the idea of sitting down with Gorbachev. The new Soviet leader challenges him on his own turf as a global personality. The general secretary is said to be uncommonly bright, and George P. Shultz brought back word from Moscow that Gorbachev is a communist. He apparently resisted the picture of the world according to Reagan that the secretary of state drew for him.
Endless consternation was caused by Shultz's report. The White House strategy for dealing with a modern leader was apparently to bury him under the weight of Reagan's disapproval.
It began in September with a warning to the Soviets from his national security affairs adviser that they better shape up. It was followed by the testing of an antisatellite weapon and a charge that Soviets were spraying Americans with "spy dust" in Moscow. Since then, we have claimed that the ABM treaty does not apply to Star Wars, the president has catalogued Soviet sins and the Pentagon has issued another report about Soviet treaty violations.
Some Republicans say that their hunch is that Reagan wants arms control so much he will sell out in Geneva. It is a belief based on the gravestone argument: "Peacemaker" must be inscribed on it. Others say Reagan sincerely seeks settlement, although one that gives the Soviets nothing. But they think that it will all work out and that Reagan will, as in the case of the South African sanctions, accept reality.
His performance on Gramm-Rudman-Hollings is, so far, not reassuring on the point.
And what if Gorbachev tells him in Geneva that he "can't have both." Will he get "visibly angry," as he did in the White House and come back to tell Congress there was no dealing with the Soviets? It's such prospects that make some Americans dread the summit as much as Reagan does.