There is a new disease in Washington, and its incidence is on the rise. Its victims exhibit a range of symptoms: mild catatonia, a slightly stunned expression around the eyes and a mouth that gapes open in wonder. Patients may typically be found sitting dreamily on a park bench or strolling aimlessly along the Mall. Onset is sudden, and seems to be produced simply by reviewing the brief six-month record of the Reagan administration. Medical investigators speculate that the traumanow designated acute adaptive Reaganitis—is caused by the body’s inability to accept rapid change. Certain societal groups may be predisposed, including liberals, Democrats, blacks, labor unions, environmentalists and the poor. There is, at present, no known cure.
Mozart lived to the age of 35 and wrote 1,000 works of music. Ronald Reagan, at 70, is off to a late start. But he is producing at an impressive clip. In only six months in office, he has utterly transformed the character and mood of Washington. His people—God-fearing, Communist-loathing, free enterprise Republicans—command the Senate. He has forged a convenient alliance with conservative Democrats to control the House. The first of as many as six Supreme Court appointments is now his to make, and no one doubts Reagan will fill Potter Stewart’s vacancy, and those that follow, with like-minded conserva-
tives scornful of the intrusive role of big governments.
With muscle and manoeuvre, the president has won passage of what is surely the most controversial budget in generations, curbing or cancelling dozens of federal programs. Reagan’s budget philosophy is a fundamental part of his ethic: it is not government’s role to promote social change. It is government’s role to get out of the way and let change occur, if at all, from the natural inertia of events.
It is not true that the nation has suddenly witnessed an exodus of those who challenge this assumption. They can
still be sighted occasionally, sniping from the discreet distance of college podia, careful to note that Reagan deserves a chance to make his program work—or not. This logical approach recognizes that, for now, Democrats
(a) have nothing better to propose, and
(b) have more to lose than to gain by obstructing a popular president. But with the opposition immobilized, the White House has been moving on other fronts: the Clean Air Act, consumer product safety standards, anti-trust measures, environmental protections, occupational health laws—whatever is perceived as standing between a corporation’s investment and its greater profit will soon face a surgical defanging of its regulatory bite.
Reagan’s foreign policy performance has been less consistent, and certainly less effective. The precise cause is hard to locate. It may be the profound distrust with which his senior advisers, if not the president himself, continue to view their own secretary of state, Alexander Haig. It may be the disarray that characterizes Richard Allen’s National Security Council operation. It may be Reagan’s own lack of interest in the substance of foreign policy. Whatever its origin, observers sense a disturbing vacuum at the centre of Reagan diplomacy. Sometimes it is filled by Haig or by Allen, sometimes by Vice-President
George Bush, sometimes by Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger and sometimes by the potent presidential troika—Ed Meese, Jim Baker and Michael Deaver—whose expertise in foreign affairs is, to be polite, recently acquired.
“Sometimes it seems as if our right hand doesn’t know what our far right hand is doing,” Reagan once joked. Indeed, there have been some embarrassing miscues. The planned sale of advanced radar planes to Saudi Arabia, El Salvador, the revelations of America’s nuclear presence in Japanese seas, the on-again-off-again embargo of F-16 jet deliveries to Israel, the spectacle of George Bush in Manila last week, toasting the democratic spirit of Ferdinand Marcos—all of these have hurt the administration’s credibility.
Taking a hard line with Soviet expan-
sionism is a useful domestic stratagem, but the allies do not seem terribly impressed. There is tension between Washington and Tokyo (over defence spending), Washington and Ottawa (over energy resources), Washington and Europe (interest rates), Washington and the Middle East (arms sales).
The damage has so far been minimal. His White House keepers have managed Reagan well, limiting his exposure to the press, adding frequent rest stops to his schedule, making the most of his script-reading ability and his personal charm. However, one should avoid the temptation to conclude that Reagan is politically invincible. It is sobering to remember that after approximately the same number of months, the world thought equally well of Jimmy Carter.
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