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Reagan Faces Return of the Establishment

March 08, 1987|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — In future biographies of Ronald Reagan, the week between Feb. 26 and March 4, 1987, will be called "the Revenge of the Establishment." First the Establishment passed judgment on the Reagan Administration and found its behavior unacceptable. Then reliable agents of the Establishment were called in to repair the damage. The condemned Administration is now in receivership.

This is quite a reversal for a President who made his career by running against Establishments--first the Eastern Establishment that controlled the Republican Party and then the liberal Establishment that ran the federal government.

The Tower Commission, acting as the executive committee of the Washington power elite, reproached the Administration, using the strongest phrase of disapproval in the Establishment vocabulary: It called the Iran arms initiative "a very unprofessional operation." Recoiling from this harsh invective, the President fired his chief of staff and replaced him with a consummate professional who has the confidence of the power elite, former Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.). Baker's appointment, along with the earlier designation of Frank C. Carlucci as national security adviser and the subsequent choice of William H. Webster to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, are acts of penance designed to "restore credibility." With whom? With the Washington power elite, of course.

The Iran arms deal and the diversion of funds to the contras were motivated by ideology. They were carried out by zealots who had contempt for foreign-policy professionals. Ideology is alien to the power elite. Washington insiders prefer to deal with pragmatists and consensus-builders, moderates skilled at the art of compromise. Exactly like Baker.

Gone from the Administration are the true believers, John M. Poindexter and Oliver L. North, who saw the world as "us" versus "them" and believed, as most ideologues do, that the end justifies the means. Also gone are the Reagan loyalists, William J. Casey and Donald T. Regan, whose mission in government was to "let Reagan be Reagan." In their place are Baker, Carlucci and Webster, men with exemplary Establishment credentials--a former congressional leader, a former career Foreign Service officer and ambassador and an FBI director and former federal judge. More to the point, Baker, Carlucci and Webster made their reputations long before Reagan became President. They do not depend on Reagan for legitimacy. That is what has the hard-core Reaganites worried.

In an interview last year, Baker described himself as a Reaganite. But he offered a distinctively non-ideological assessment of the Reagan presidency. "I think there has indeed been a Reagan revolution," Baker said, "but I don't think it is an anti-Establishment revolution. That might be the rhetoric, but that is not the reality of it." The reality, as Baker saw it, is that Reagan is an Establishment President. "To begin with," Baker said, "he has worked well with the government and with Congress. Unlike (Jimmy) Carter, Reagan is a real pro. Every Tuesday morning at 10 o'clock I used to sit in the Cabinet room with the leadership and the President. It was a good give-and-take--traditional American politics. He managed it very well. That certainly was not anti-Establishment."

What Baker admires about Reagan is his political skill, not his ideology. Indeed, Baker has been vilified by conservatives because, as Senate minority leader, he helped lead the fight for ratification of the Panama Canal treaties; as majority leader from 1981-84, he did little to advance the religious right's social agenda, and since leaving office he has advocated a tax increase to help reduce the deficit. When interviewed last year, Baker committed ideological apostasy several times.

On the Strategic Defense Initiative: "I am not at all convinced SDI will work." He then added, "I am convinced that we will not discharge our obligation if we don't try."

On trade: "We simply do not have an opportunity for free trade in the classic sense any longer."

How does Baker deal with polarizing issues like race and religion? He expresses the true establishmentarian's faith in the system: "So far, we have managed to contain those passions within the framework of a broader constituency and a broader set of interests. That is happening now. Neither civil rights nor the religious right is going to disrupt the American political system." Spoken like a pro.

Baker's professionalism is already working. Last week, Senate Democrats decided they did not have the votes to cut off the final $40 million in military aid already authorized for the contras. "Howard Baker changed the equation," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). "The feeling is that Howard has a few votes in his pocket."

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