The Mistake of the Union

POLITICS

INTERPRETATIONS COME quickly and thickly in the wake of Ronald Reagan's State of the Union message. Together, we can embark on a new beginning. The Union must stop growing, lest it begin to rot. Return responsibility to the grass roots and in the process root out the weeds. Invoking leaders as varied as Churchill, Lincoln, FDR and JFK, the president struck many poses. Four spring immediately to mind:

1. Ronald Reagan, Libertarian: "In forging this new partnership for America we could achieve the oldest hopes of our Republic--prosperity for our nation, peace for the world, and the blessings of individual liberty for our children and, someday, for all humanity."

(We love equality more than we love liberty, Tocqueville wrote. We must not let these dangerous leanings go unchecked. Kindle the sacred flame of liberty, and don't worry about the fact that unemployment will run rampant, most of the world will go hungry, and our children can't pay for higher education. Sanity will embrace "humanity.")

2. Ronald Reagan, Man of Action: "Let us solve this problem with a single, bold stroke--the return of some $47 billion of Federal programs to state and local government, together with the means to finance them and a transition period of nearly ten years to avoid unnecessary disruption."

(Problems beg solutions. No sense wasting time. Under this new plan, the states would be able to reduce benefits for the poor within a few short years [by 1987]. Besides, though, only a dozen or so states currently have the bureaucratic know-how necessary to handle large, basic-income programs, the grass roots would never fall prey to the temptations of corruption. And those who dwell amid the debris and detritus of our modern cities will gladly shoulder the extra tax burden without fleeing for the suburbs.)

3. Ronald Reagan, Realist: "The budget deficit this year will exceed our earlier expectations. The recession did that. It lowered expectations and increased costs. To some extent, we are also victims of our own success."

(That nasty recession, it went and lowered expectations. But who "did" the recession? Ah, well. The logic of the supply-side stream has slowed to a trickle; why not take another boat? Christen it while Congress is still worried about "old" problems like taxes and spending. Call it the New Federalism. All aboard! Nothing succeeds like "success"; nothing recedes like recess.)

4. Ronald Reagan, Idealist: "In the face of a climate of falsehood and misinformation, we have promised the world a season of truth--the truth of our great civilized ideas; individual liberty, representative government, the rule of law under God."

(We will not buckle to the forces of the Great Conspiracy. We will not countenance those who would disagree with our Vision. We will not fail to tame Interest Rates and their perpetrators. We will not fail to loosen the fetters of the repressed crude-oil Priviligentsia. We will not fail to meet the test.)

IF THE MARK OF sincere federalism is the acceptance of differences, Ronald Reagan has yet to earn the label of federalist. He has driven a wedge between classes and races and regions and nations. When he speaks of "the nation," he clearly refers to but a fraction of America--those who stand to gain lucratively from tax breaks, both personal and business. It is ironic that Reagan chose to quote Lincoln's words to Congress on Tuesday. As Lincoln no doubt realized and as Reagan cannot understand, the "history" so "inescapable" has largely been the path toward removing oppressive, less-fortunate features of the original American compact. And now, hiding behind a wall of abstract platitudes, Reagan intends to dismantle the precious safeguards that have been tortuously erected.

Federalism, in its essence, depends on rational compromise. It requires the central government's willingness to exist eo-evally with regional autonomous bodies of government. On the surface, Reagan's "equal swap"--we'll take care of your sick if you'll take care of your poor, as William Safire put it yesterday in The New York Times--seems to embody that compromise. But note Safire's use of the second person. Indeed, "all's right-wing with the world," as he wrote; Reagan and his cohorts refuse to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, the poor is not "your poor" but "our poor."

Still, we are used to this sort of Republican callousness, the supposedly indiscriminate slashing of illegitimte social progrms--"weak claims," David Stockman calls them, "waste and fraud," in Reagan's words--which then turns out to whittle away only the legitimate claims of the weak while propping up the Trojan Horse of the strong. Might, at home as well as abroad, makes right. The main fallacy of this New Federalism is the relationship between the central government and the local and state apparatuses. Who can pretend that the states are autonomous anymore, economically or politically? Who can pretend that the federal government should cede its power to assure basic needs across the country to decentralized, parochial and inefficient authorities? Apparently, the same people who last year at this time waited for the Laffer Curve to slope off of a napkin and on to their bank statements. They took the tax cut and ran leaving without even fulfilling their side of the bargain--restoring business confidence.

Ronald Reagan, on the verge of inciting the most severe economic crisis since the Depression--read the Wall St. tickers, watch the interest rates, check the unemployment lines--proposes old remedies. Perhaps he means to divert attention from the already obvious sourness of supply cider, yet all signs indicate he really believes in his program. After the New Federalism becomes transparent, Reagan may have to resort to a familiar economic panacea, a different type of "bold stroke": war.

On the foreign policy front, Reagan offers little reassurance as he demonstrated once again in his address to Congress. As Stanley Hoffmann wrote this month in a perceptive critique of Reaganism in The New York Review of Books, "An ideology is not a strategy." After outlining the favorable conditions present when the administration assumed office and the elements of its simplistic ideology. Hoffmann examined the record of Year One and concluded, not surprisingly, that an effective foreign policy could never proceed logically from Reagan's prescribed set of attitudes.

BOTH IN DOMESTIC and in international affairs, then, this administration provides a vexing problem for its opportunism of method with seeming consistency of aim. Reagan has thus far stuck to his guns and has dispelled many doubts with his adroit sense of humor. He remains, in most respects the same politician who appealed to the Republican convention to bow its collective head in prayer, and his policies will require an extraordinary and unlikely collective act of faith. The Democrats and the media, however, have been unable to expose the crudeness of Reagan's means or the injustice of his ends.

The president's armor is formidable. When the media clamps down, Reagan returns the favor by trying to seal leaks or dismissing queries with something akin to "There you go again," casting reporters as enemies of the national interest. Here the ruthless Realist in Reagan overshadows the Libertarian. When the Democrats dare to predict that Reagan's grand design will crumble under the weight of its internal contradictions, the president responds by calling these condemnations "wild charges" and warning his public not to "be fooled by those who proclaim that spending cuts will deprive the elderly, the needy and the helpless." Here the purblind Idealist in Reagan overpowers the Realist. Who will be deprived by the programs of this Man of Action if not the elderly, the needy and the helpless? Ronald Reagan, nice guy, manages to assuage fears about the facts.

The need to unearth attractive alternatives and co-ordinate criticisms of Reaganomics and Reaganism grows more urgent each day. Congress cannot be co-opted into "this new partnership." Otherwise, the Ronald Reagan who is part Libertarian, part Man of Action, part Realist, part Idealist--and wholly pernicious--will carry the day, with disastrous consequences.