SAN CLEMENTE — October has been a cruel month for Ronald Reagan, triggering again a flood of observations that he's lost control of the agenda.
Waving the War Powers Act, Congress is challenging presidential actions in the Persian Gulf. Blame for Monday's Wall Street debacle is being pointed in the President's direction. After having personally staked so much of his agenda on the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork, that nomination was lost on Friday. Contra funding is in jeopardy. The trade deficit runs high and, in the wake of the stock market plunge, the budget deficit is back on the President's front burner. Almost daily, one of the Democratic candidates pounds away at the President, not to mention a periodic discordant note from Republicans.
Is this the end of the Reagan presidency? Those who know Reagan and have seen him confront adversity know that under such circumstances he shines. With the proper effort, strategy and timing, Reagan can recapture the initiative and put an end to the virulent "lame duckism" that his adversaries (and the weaker sisters among his friends) are trying to foist on the last year of his presidency.
The presidency--as those Iranians on the Persian Gulf oil platform discovered last week--is still the pre-eminent repository of power and action. Through the executive powers of his office and his ability to dominate the media, the President has all the tools at hand to regain control of the national agenda.
What's needed, first, is a change in attitude--not just in the White House, but throughout the Administration and the Republican Party leadership in Congress.
That's easy to say. Those of us who bear scars from the embattled years of the Nixon Administration know how quickly come the fatigue and flagging spirit caused by unremitting pressure and controversy. Still, the Oval Office is occupied by an incurable optimist--a man with an indomitable determination to achieve his goals. What's more, he ain't afraid of a fight. His Administration would do well to learn from the Boss and infuse the mission with a dose of self-confidence.
The next step is to understand that the battle lines in Washington were drawn long ago. With minor exceptions, the Democratic Congress--and the special-interest groups--do not want compromise. They want capitulation. They long ago reached the conclusion that the political destruction of Reagan and his allies was key to their political success.
Regardless of how civil and non-confrontational the President is, his opponents will seek to inflict defeat and embarrassment on him. That is a fact of life in Washington, and nothing exemplified it more than the conduct of Senate Democrats during the Bork nomination hearings.
Democracy as practiced in Washington today is not a dignified minuet. It consists of epic battles of will and tough applications of political pressure in public and private forums. The Reagan Administration cannot play by Marquis of Queensbury rules. It's time--as "The Godfather's" Corleone family did--to "go to the mattresses."
Herewith some opportunities:
1) The White House should be an active participant in what's left of the debate over Bork. The President has won respect by sticking with Bork, and he should be unapologetic about it. But now that Bork has been voted down, the White House will be wise to follow the President's instincts as expressed in a recent off-the-cuff remark. Reagan made clear that he intends his next nominee to upset the Democrats "just as much" as Bork did.
The Supreme Court nomination can be a vehicle for the Administration to convince its opponents that such confrontations will not leave them politically unscathed--especially if they're tempted to repeat the McCarthyite smear campaign used against Bork.
2) The President should take out his veto pen and use it with alacrity over the next few weeks. Not every veto will be sustained, but every veto effort--if fought with conviction--will show Congress that its members must constantly assess their own political vulnerabilities as they weigh every override vote. Each successive attempt to override will be more difficult. Senators and congressmen don't like repeated controversial votes, and it won't be long before vetoes begin to stick.
Moreover, sensing what they believe to be a weakened President, and flush with their Bork victory, the left wing in Congress will begin lading legislation with bizarre spending schemes. The President is never better than when the true believer in him comes out--on the offense against those who created the governmental excesses that plunged America into the malaise of the late 1970s.