DAVIS, Calif. — Whether it is George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis who wins the presidency, his agenda will almost certainly be dominated by a dilemma inherited from his predecessor: While succeeding brilliantly in reducing the government's ability to raise revenues, Ronald Reagan also failed dismally to curb the public's appetite for government spending.
That is the salient conclusion about the Reagan legacy shared by political scientists and political practitioners as the Reagan era approaches a significant milestone, the 10th anniversary of California's adoption of Proposition 13, the property tax-slashing initiative of 1978. That vote dramatized the anti-government themes which became the mainspring of the Reagan credo and is widely credited with launching the Reagan era.
Reagan coupled a pledge to put the conservative principles embodied in the state initiative into practice on the home front with a promise to raise defense spending enough to get the United States to "stand taller" in its dealings with other countries, particularly with its chief adversary, the Soviet Union.
Whatever they may think of the results of his efforts, analysts all across the political spectrum agree that with Reagan having more than six months to go in the Oval Office, his stewardship already has had far-reaching consequences.
"No President since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had a greater impact on the political system than Ronald Reagan," says Larry Berman, political science professor at UC Davis, who last week directed a conference on the legacy of the Reagan presidency that is expected to be the forerunner of many such scholarly conclaves in the years ahead.
Because Reagan, far more than most U.S. presidents, has been linked to a clear set of ideological beliefs, objective assessments of his tenure are hard to come by even in the supposedly nonpartisan groves of academe.
"Where you stand on the Reagan presidency depends on where you sit ideologically," said Tom Mann, director of the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Area of Social Issues
Liberals tend to bemoan Reagan's objectives but complain that he succeeded all too well in achieving them. On the other hand, conservatives, while supporting Reagan's goals, grumble that he did not reach enough of them, particularly in the area of so-called social issues, where Reagan has so far been unable to undo the Supreme Court's sanctioning of abortion and its ban on school prayer.
Strikingly, though all of Reagan's political experience before the presidency was in domestic affairs, his most positive achievement as President may turn out to be in foreign affairs--concluding the treaty with the Soviet Union eliminating intermediate-range missiles, and if the current summit talks in Moscow succeed, fostering a new climate of understanding with the Kremlin.
Some analysts argue that none of this would have occurred if Mikhail S. Gorbachev had not taken over as Soviet leader, determined to solve some of his country's massive internal problems by easing tensions with the West. But many scholars believe that Reagan still deserves plenty of credit for sticking to his hard line on arms control and other issues, in the face of more than six years of criticism from liberals.
New Terms of Cooperation
"He challenged the Soviet Union and established new terms of cooperation," Condoleezza Rice, Stanford University specialist in Soviet affairs, told the Reagan legacy conference here. "In doing so, he has broadened the bipartisan consensus for arms control as a strategy in meeting some of the security requirements of the United States."
As many see it, Reagan has also done a big favor for his successor, whoever it turns out to be. "The next President should come in with important opportunities for dealing with the Soviet Union," said Brookings senior fellow Stephen Hess, a former White House aide to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. "In this area, the new President should be able to hit the ground running."
But whatever advantage Reagan may have given his successor in international affairs, many believe it has been more than offset by the problems he leaves behind domestically because of the twin towers of deficit--the balance of trade and the federal budget--both of which reached record highs in this Administration.
In an even-handed assessment of the Reagan legacy for the conference here, Mann of Brookings called these deficits, particularly the trade deficit, "the biggest failure" of the Reagan presidency. Because the trade imbalance makes the United States dependent on the decisions of foreign investors to help finance its own spending, Mann said: "We are today more vulnerable economically than at any time in recent history."
Of the budget deficit, former President Gerald R. Ford warns: "I happen to think we have a time bomb, a Frankenstein monster. And something has to be done about it."