WASHINGTON — While President Reagan publicly continues to urge Congress to act on abortion and other controversial social issues, his advisers privately have abandoned that hope and instead have decided to wait for opportunities to achieve the President's social agenda indirectly--through appointments to the federal courts.
Reagan already has appointed more than 250 of the nation's 743 federal district and appeals court judges, and his appointees are uniformly conservative. With normal rates of turnover, he is likely to have named a solid majority of all such judges before his second term ends, a level not equaled since Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But the real hope of Reagan's aides lies with the nine-member Supreme Court, where five aging justices have upheld the 1973 decision legalizing abortion and otherwise thwarted Reagan on his social initiatives.
"The appointment of two justices to the Supreme Court could do more to advance the social agenda--school prayer, anti-pornography, anti-busing, right-to-life and quotas in employment--than anything Congress can accomplish in 20 years," said White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan, a leading advocate of the conservative social agenda.
None of the five justices who have opposed Reagan's social agenda have indicated plans to retire. Justices William J. Brennan, 79, and Thurgood Marshall, 77, have said that they will leave the court "feet first." The others are Justices Harry A. Blackmun, 77; Lewis F. Powell Jr., 78, and John Paul Stevens, 66.
If one of those justices does leave the court, Reagan undoubtedly would replace him with someone who would be expected to tip the balance in favor of his social agenda. More than officials of other recent administrations, Reagan and his aides have paid close attention to the philosophical views of prospective candidates for the federal bench.
Social Issues Delayed
During Reagan's first term, his conservative supporters generally accepted a White House strategy of giving top priority to such presidential initiatives as the defense buildup and cutting taxes. Reagan strategists at that time suggested that, once he had been safely reelected to a second term, Reagan would move the social issues to the fore.
And, in his public appearances, Reagan has indeed given prominence to those issues. Only last month, he used his State of the Union address to ask Congress for a constitutional amendment providing for voluntary prayer in public schools. And, two weeks before that, he told a Washington anti-abortion rally that he would "work together with members of Congress to overturn the tragedy of Roe vs. Wade," the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion.
Distracting Effect Feared
In his direct dealings with Congress, however, Reagan in his second term still has been reluctant to lobby hard for his social agenda, according to advisers, for fear it would distract attention from what is seen as more important legislative goals, including tax overhaul and the budget.
Reagan advisers such as Buchanan, political affairs specialist Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. and Lyn Nofziger, one of Daniels' predecessors in that post, say they have concluded that, despite the President's deep personal feelings about the issues, it would be a mistake for him to expend political capital on what they consider a hopeless cause.
Nofziger, a Washington consultant who was Reagan's first assistant for political affairs and who still is an unofficial adviser, said that the President "does feel strongly about the issues, but people forget that Ronald Reagan is a practical politician as well as a zealot on some issues. And he knows you're not going to shove that stuff through Congress no matter how much he wants it, certainly not with the makeup of Congress today. Other things, like taxes, the budget and summits, have superseded the social agenda, and they always will."
National conservative leaders apparently are resigned to the Administration's new wait-and-hope approach.
"There's not a lot of unhappiness because our expectations were dashed early in the first Reagan Administration," said Richard A. Viguerie, publisher of the Conservative Digest and a leading activist for the social agenda. "Pat Buchanan had said, 'Boy, wait till we get by the reelection, we're gonna really hump for those issues,' but we didn't really believe that song and dance. There are enormous problems in our society, and the social issues are important, but we recognize that economic issues and foreign policy are front and center."
Certainly, it is hard to quarrel with the White House assessment that prospects in Congress are bleak when it comes to the social issues.