WASHINGTON — At the beginning of 1986, Ronald Reagan was flying high--likely to be the first successful two-term Presi dent since Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the end of 1986, Ronald Reagan was a lame duck, his effectiveness depleted and his popularity squandered. Welcome to Year 1 of the post-Reagan era.
It wasn't just Iran and contras . Even before the controversy, Reagan was showing signs of losing clout. The first clear indication came in early October, when Congress voted to override the President's veto of a bill imposing stiff sanctions on South Africa. A year earlier, faced with similar congressional pressure, Reagan defused the issue by announcing his own program of limited executive sanctions. In 1986, he forced a showdown--and lost.
The midterm elections confirmed what people were beginning to suspect. Reagan barnstormed the country for Republican senatorial candidates, arguing that a Democratic recapture of the Senate would reverse the mandate of 1980 and endanger his agenda. He lost. One reason he lost is that he did not really have an agenda. In order to make a convincing case for a Republican Senate, the President had to explain what he wanted to do in the next two years. He couldn't. Even if the Iran fiasco had never happened, Reagan's agenda was exhausted.
Presidents who win landslide re-election have an unfortunate tendency to over-interpret their mandate. Reagan fell into the trap and we should have known something like this would happen. After all, Reagan is a man of deep ideological convictions. Ideologues are always tempted to believe that the end justifies the means, or to accept that reasoning in others--as, for instance, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and White House Communications Director Patrick J. Buchanan.
We have also known about Reagan's detached management style. He concerns himself only with the big picture and leaves details to others. The combination of ideological fervor and aloof management turned out to be explosive. It meant that zealots were tolerated and even encouraged in the White House, but no one kept an eye on what they were doing.
Reagan could count several major achievements in 1986: tax reform, the No. 1 domestic priority for his second term; confirmation for William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia as the new chief justice and associate justice on the Supreme Court, and a public relations triumph following the inconclusive Reykjavik summit. The problem is that each of these achievements is likely to sour over time. Public opinion was never very enthusiastic about tax reform. Having become increasingly Reaganized, the courts will probably issue more and more controversial rulings on civil rights and abortion--the kinds of divisive issues Reagan has steered clear of in his legislative agenda. And Reykjavik set the stage for an increasingly acrimonious debate over the Administration's commitment to arms control. Even the Soviets seem to have given up on making a deal with Reagan.
As everyone acknowledges, arms control, the federal budget deficit and international trade are the most serious problems facing the country right now. But the Administration doesn't seem to have a program for dealing with any of them. And even if it did, Reagan has lost the principal source of his political effectiveness--a special relationship with the American public. His approval ratings have dropped from far above to slightly below where a President usually stands after six years in office. That means neither politicians nor the press will treat Reagan with the kind of deference--or fear--they exhibited in the past. Lame ducks don't scare anybody.
The arms scandal is, of course, at the top of the political agenda for 1987, diverting attention from the real problems of arms control, trade and the deficit. For one simple reason: Nobody knows what to do about arms control, trade and the deficit. Congress and the press are much more comfortable dealing with a scandal. They go into their Watergate mode. Congress becomes an investigative rather than a legislative body, with plenty of room for TV cameras. And the press narrows its focus. The President can talk about the budget or trade policy or missile throw-weights, but the press is only going to pay attention to The Big Story: What did the President know and when did he know it? A good many members of Congress are looking in their mirrors and saying, "You know, I could be the new Sam Ervin," or "the new Barbara Jordan" or "the new Pete Rodino." And a good many Washington reporters are saying to themselves, "I could be the new Bob Woodward" or "the new Carl Bernstein." Visions of Pulitzer Prizes and movie scripts dance in their heads.