President Reagan has a lot to lose by staying in office another year. This is far from obvious to someone basking in the glory of an arms agreement and summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But any day now the public will learn that Reagan didn't know that the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces doesn't actually rid the world of any nuclear warheads.
Reagan and his new ally, the New York Times, have been telling the public that the treaty abolishes thousands of nuclear weapons. In fact, it abolishes only some specific missiles, or delivery systems, thus freeing the warheads for redeployment. In the Soviet case the missiles slated for destruction are largely obsolete and redundant. The treaty is perfectly consistent with the modernization and growth of the Soviet missile force.
There may be a real advantage to us of a treaty that denudes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of nuclear retaliatory capability against the Soviet Union, and the Senate hearings may reveal what this advantage is. But don't be surprised if the treaty is a stage for a media spectacle designed to prove that Ronald Reagan is not a lame duck.
Lame-duckism is the affliction that devours Presidents in their final year. It sets in automatically as aides seek rapprochement with political opponents in order to protect their own future careers. But Reagan faces a more serious malady. He is surrounded by ambitious pragmatists who are determined to prove that no President entrusted to their care has lame-duck worries.
This means a spate of deal-making that will be guided primarily by the need for deals. The principles that differentiated Reagan will suffer as aides grasp for headlines with which to fend off charges of political irrelevance. During Reagan's last year, political egotists can unravel the accomplishments of the previous seven.
The process of dismantling has already begun. Consider last month's budget compromise. The need for a deal left Reagan with tax increases in place of budget cuts--an absurd result when all he had to do was to sit back and allow the Gramm-Rudman budget law to cut spending automatically.
Watching Reagan gratuitously accepting tax increases and pursuing accommodation with the Evil Empire makes you wonder if he isn't becoming a cardboard figure. He could protect himself from this danger by simply resting on his laurels--or even taking early retirement and going back to the ranch.
A forthcoming book by Michael K. Deaver, long-time Reagan aide and First Lady favorite, describes how he and Nancy Reagan teamed up to manipulate the President into firing his conservative advisers and softening his line on the Soviet Union. If this unflattering image of Reagan is correct, aides determined to dominate the news will produce a lot of bad deals in 1988.
Reagan has more to lose than most Presidents have, because he has achieved so much. He stopped the rise in federal tax rates that Americans had experienced for decades, dropping the top tax rate from 70% to 33%. The worsening trade-offs between inflation and unemployment that were the bane of the Carter Administration were banished under Reagan's reign, and the Reagan economy holds the record for the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history.
America also returned to life on the international scene. The military buildup gave the country confidence to act. The communists were ejected from Grenada. Libyan terrorist Moammar Kadafi was quieted with bombs. The Persian Gulf is patrolled. And anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan and Angola was rejuvenated with U.S. military aid. Even when Reagan's policy got out of hand, as in the Iran-Contra affair, it demonstrated a daring in dramatic contrast with the passivism of his predecessor.
To overreach now would jeopardize it all. Relax and be a lame duck, Mr. President, and leave some glory for your successor.