Last week's Republican revolt in the House over the pending tax-overhaul bill had multiple causes but most of all reflected the strategic disarray that has become commonplace at the White House under the leadership of chief of staff Donald T. Regan.
On Nov. 22, the day after he returned from his successful summit meeting at Geneva, President Reagan was politically on top of the world. His popularity was soaring, and his advisers looked forward to House passage of the tax-overhaul legislation that Reagan has made his major domestic priority.
With this in mind, Reagan initialed a decision document recommended to him by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III. It called for Reagan to issue a qualified endorsement of the tax-overhaul legislation produced by the House Ways and Means Committee and to send a letter to members of Congress urging them to keep the "tax-reform process moving forward" by passing the bill.
House Republican leaders were solidly against the measure, believing that it would penalize smokestack industries, threaten economic growth and infuriate business contributors. But they expected a Reagan endorsement and privately predicted that the bill would pass.
After Reagan had initialed the decision document, however, the strategy was undone by Regan and his chief lieutenant, Dennis Thomas, who were sensitive to the claims of the GOP leadership. No statement was issued by the White House. Baker and Deputy Treasury Secretary Richard G. Darman, who had cut a deal with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) on terms broadly favorable to the president, were undercut and the Reagan decision was nullified. By the time the president sent a watered-down letter nearly two weeks later, the revolt was in full swing.
As a political leader, Reagan has always been a study in contrasts. He has a sense of what he wants to accomplish and, when presented with clear options, can make tough choices without undue anguish. His longtime advisers say his principal executive skill is making the best choice from a list of alternatives, an ability on which Baker and Darman relied when they managed legislative strategy at the White House in the first term.
But Reagan is also an incurious president who rarely demands that aides do something they have not thought of themselves. Usually, he waits passively for a list of choices to be presented to him. When Reagan's managers are in conflict and cannot resolve their strategies, he is apt to be in trouble.
When Reagan's staff subordinates its differences and decides on a common strategy, the president is apt to do well. This is one reason for Reagan's smooth performance at the summit, where he rose to the occasion in his meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But Reagan had a clear sense of mission at Geneva. On diverse domestic issues, from the farm bill to South African sanctions, he has been limited to reacting to events.
Regan, a whiz on Wall Street and a success at Treasury, has not learned the art of White House politics. He has initiated several of Reagan's principal embarrassments this year, such as the unceremonious dismissal of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler, "promoted" to ambassador to Ireland. Regan also blithely embraced the dubious deficit-reduction bill approved by Congress last week, ignoring early warnings that it will undermine the president's defense buildup.
Part of the problem is conceptual, reflecting the inability of the Regan crew to see even a week into the future. And part of the problem is that Regan does not seem to understand that presidents are supposed to take credit for accomplishments while their chiefs of staff accept responsibility for defeats.
Perhaps it is only fair to blame the president because he accepted the bizarre job switch between Regan and Baker without a murmur. In any case, Reagan was elected to make the decisions. By turning them over to a chief of staff who can't get the job done, Reagan is losing his clout with Congress and the prospects for a successful completion of his presidency.
Reaganism of the Week: Speaking Friday at an awards ceremony in the White House, Reagan said: "Each president, each administration is a rendezvous with Father Time . . . . I went to school with him; he was a classmate."