How Not to Beat Reagan

POLITICS

PREPOSTEROUSLY ENOUGH, speculation persists over Ronald Reagan's plans for 1984. Of course the President is running for reelection. Each of his advisors has hinted as much in recent weeks, and Reagan himself has smilingly referred to the need for a second term to fulfill his conservative agenda. Just last week, presidential counselor Edwin Meese III told reporters that if Reagan "had to make the decision today, he would definitely plan to run." So why is the President delaying his announcement till Labor Day? Because the longer he eschews partisanship, the longer he appears presidential--a pointed contrast to the half-dozen Democratic "cattle" purveying their wares around the country in a manner than can only be called sheepish.

A better question than "will he or won't he?" is how seriously to take Reagan's inevitable reclection bid. The answer very. For all his abysmal popularity ratings of late, this President is going to be extremely hard to beat. It's not just that optimistic Democratic challengers are making the same mistake that politicians have been making since 1966: underestimating Ronald Reagan. It's that the Democrats themselves have yet to devise a sensible strategy for combatting the President Rather, they have been striking campaign themes that--while appealing to the party's left wing--promise to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst in attracting other voters.

Consider, for example, the following elements of the Democrats' arsenal.

The "fairness issue" The main Democratic ideological weapon to date, this issue appeals to voters upset with the President's propensity to soak the poor Reaganomics, the argument goes, has affected different economic strata differently and, therefore, unjustly. The problem with this line of attack is not that it is wrong--sadly, it is quite correct--but that it carries little promise of attracting the voters the Democrats need to win back the White House.

As Penn-Schoen, a New York polling firm, found in an extensive 1982 survey, most voters acknowledge that the President's economic policies have hurt the poor. Importantly, however, a sizable majority believe that Reagan's measures will eventually improve the economy. As the firm's partners concluded in a New York Times article.

By emphasizing the issue of inequality. Democrats are conceding that the President's program may work to improve the economy--and, as our numbers show, the electorate is far more concerned with results than with fairness. Voters are willing to endure disproportionate suffering and cutbacks as long as in the end, as the President promised, things get better for everyone.

In a nutshell, the American voter perceives a trade off between equity and efficiency and assumes that Ronald Reagan's assault on the former will pay off in the latter. The recent upturn in the economy can only enhance this perception Democratic yelping about fairness thus appears, in Penn-Schoen's words, "little more than a rehashing of the tired Democratic theme of more Government spending for the poor--the old big-spending liberal ideas that many swing voters rejected in 1980." And as a result, surveys indicate that fully half of union members prefer Reaganomics to old-time Democratic social spending.

A smarter Democratic appeal would tackle the efficiency of Reaganomics head-on. With the GNP drooping, industrial plant closings way up. Middle America in shambles and nary a sign of the much-heralded supply side investment boom, it is difficult if not impossible to defend the Republican economic initiatives as leading to overall economic health. A more centrist appeal--challenging Reaganomics on what proponents consider its own merits--would doubtless capture many of those voters more distressed by economic listlessness than by inequity.

Everyone remembers the tantalizing question Ronald Reagan put to the American people in October 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"; but few recall the Republican nominee's follow-up question. "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?" Ronald Reagan cleaned up three years ago by depicting his party as the party of prosperity; the Great Communicator can do so again if his championship of efficiency goes unchallenged. If the Democrats continue to focus on unemployment and unfairness. Reagan will counter by pointing to plummeting inflation rates.

Remember in peacetime, Americans vote their pocketbooks. Diminished inflation sounds good to everyone; unemployment and inequity can only be certain of winning the votes of the unemployed and the poor, most of whom already vote Democratic, when they vote at all. The Democrats have to take the less-inflation-hence prosperity issue out of Reagan's hands by exposing the bankruptcy of Reaganomics as an efficient economic system.

The nuclear issue: The danger here again is that Democratic rhetoric could permit Reagan to preempt the center. If the Democratic nominee makes a nuclear freeze the centerpiece of his candidacy--as Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) has begun to do and as much of the Democratic left is likely to press for--he risks having his chief issue defused by a Reagan initiative. The 1972 analogy is enlightening: George McGovern, the Democrats' "peace" candidate, found his thunder stolen by Richard Nixon's late-October announcement that "Peace is at hand."

Voters are also likely to be wary of candidates for whom the freeze is the overriding issue for another reason: if successful, such a candidate would enter office with limited foreign policy options. When Eugene McCarthy sought the Presidency in 1968, his unwavering focus on American withdrawal from Vietnam scared off voters who felt a victorious McCarthy could come to peace talks with only one option surrender. A contender whose candidacy lives or dies on the freeze issue would face political death were he to pursue the cause less than singlemindedly as President. In such a situation, the Soviets would enjoy substantial leverage, allowing them to extract sizable American concessions in exchange for consenting to the President's plea for a freeze.

Hogwash? Think back to the early years of Jimmy Carter's Administration Carter made it clear his overriding priority abroad was SALT II, and this tunnel vision gave the Soviets a free hand else where a freedom which, as Afghanistan indicates, they did not hesitate to use. And SALT II was eventually scuttled, as the Soviet adventures that Carter's SALT-centrism bred turned Congress against the arms-control treaty.

The solution for the Democratic standard-bearer in 1984 is not to foreclose his bargaining position That means focusing on more than arms control issues--for if the nuclear dilemma is the question of our generation, it is not one that will be solved satisfactorily by allowing it to mesmerize politicians to the detriment of other American concerns.

The Democrats will be in a better position to win in 1984--and to govern thereafter--if they address other foreign policy concerns in addition to endorsing a nuclear freeze and seeking to improve the quality of U.S. Soviet relations. Examples include human rights. Latin America. Third World issues, international economic woes, environmental and energy concerns and alliance relations. Ronald Reagan's principal foreign policy problem has been his single-minded reliance on anti-Soviet bluster; instead, a policy of constructively engaging the Soviets by paying attention to issues like human rights and Third World concerns would force the USSR to come to grips with America. And that--not blindly muttering "Nuclear freeze!" over and over again--is the way to bring the Soviets to the bargaining table to engineer real arms reductions.