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Lame Duck Soup

He looks like a lame duck, and he quacks like a lame duck, so is he a lame duck? This is the same question that excites all of Washington (meaning about three dozen people). What is the explanation for President Reagan’s failure to go from strength to strength following his overwhelming reelection last November? Suddenly he is losing legislative battles, coming under attack from unexpected quarters, stumbling, backing down.

The official diagnosis blames Reagan’s ailments on a mysterious dynamic seemingly built into the American political system. Our old colleague Morton Kondracke, writing for his exalted perch as Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, cites “a new conventional wisdom: that second-term presidents are afflicted with a kind of political Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and incurable loss of potency leading sooner or later to terminal lame duckery.”

I have a simpler explanation for Reagan’s second-term troubles: ideological hubris. Ever since the election, Reagan and his advisors have been off on a right-wing bender, arrogantly assuming the country was with them. On issue after issue, this assumption turns out to be wrong. America just isn’t as conservative as the Reaganites hoped and others feared.

The president’s defenders say the problem isn’t the country. They say it’s the press and Congress, which have forgotten who won in November. But even some of Reagan’s friends complain that they ran a “feel good” campaign instead of using the election to establish a mandate for completing the Reagan revolution. This assumes of course, that such a mandate was available. I doubt it. Perhaps nothing he did could have cost Reagan the election. But a campaign based on military overthrow of the Nicraguan government, abandonment of Salt II, cutting Amtrak and student loans, and so on, would have cost him his landslide.

Just before the election, Peter Hart Associates polled Reagan voters about how they would like their votes to be interpreted. Eighty-four percent said their votes should be interpreted to mean support for Reagan’s economic policies (i.e., prosperity). Barely half wanted their votes interpreted to mean support for more increases in defense spending, for more cuts in domestic spending, or for opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment.

The military budget has gone up by half in real terms over the past five years. Cap Weinberger thought the public’s appetite for defense spending was unlimited, and unaffected by the growing evidence that much of the money is being wasted. He was wrong. The defense spending spree is over, but that isn’t “lame duckery.”

Reagan spent his first term tacitly observing the ungratified Salt II treaty. This year, egged on by Weinberger and others, he was heading toward an intentional violation of the treaty’s limit on multiwarhead missiles by retaining an old Poseidon nuclear submarine when a new Trident sub is launched this summer. Unlike some arguable Soviet violations of ancillary parts of the treaty, this would have been a clear breach of the treaty’s central provision. Furthermore, retaining the old Poseidon served no military purpose. The idea was breach for the sake of breach: a purely symbolic bellicose gesture and snub at arms control. But no one except a small band of zealots is interested in stagy nuclear bellicosity. Congress, the allies, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff all expressed their dismay, and Reagan backed off.

In his first term, Reagan kept his designs on Nicaragua carefully ambiguous. Now he openly demands that the Sandinistas “say uncle.” But a recent New York Times/CBS poll shows that Americans are almost two-to-one against helping to overthrow the Sandinistas, and more than two-to-one against military aid to the contras. After an initial defeat, it looks as if Congress will cough up more “humanitarian” aid. If there’s anything more humiliating than Reagan’s resort to the charade of “humanitarian” aid for a guerilla fighting force, it’s the Democrats’ acquiescence in the charade. But the problem isn’t “second-term blues.” The people and Reagan simply disagree.

Then there’s South Africa. Over While House objections, Congress is going to vote some kind of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. On this issue, Reagan has unwittingly moved the country to the left. An honorable case can be made against sanctions on the rounds that they hurt the very people they’re designed to help. But the administration has poisoned that position, first, by piously imposing sanctions on Nicaragua, and second by its utterly unconvincing “constructive engagement” policy toward South Africa. There are going to be sanctions, not because Reagan has run his last political race, but because most Americans object to apartheid more than the president apparently does.

Reagan’s recent appointee troubles reflect two different kinds of hubris. First, there’s the hubris—and contempt for government—of an administration that thinks it can give important positions to extremist kooks and lightweights like Eileen Gardner (the one who wrote that the handicapped have “summoned” their disabilities) and Marianne Hall (coauthor the book that discussed blacks and their “jungle freedoms”). Then there’s the hubris of a Donald Devine, who recently gave up trying to be reappointed as head of the civil service. When Devine’s first term as director expired in March, he appointed himself executive assistant to the director and signed an order giving the executive assistant all the director’s powers. That is the action of a man who thinks he’s been anointed, an attitude Devine may well have picked up from his administration colleagues.

It’s often said by conservatives that liberals in Washington suffer from an “inside the Beltway” mentality, and have no idea what people are thinking in the rest of the country. Since November, it’s the conservatives who’ve been living in an “inside the Beltway” dream world. They’ve become convinced that everybody except a few cranks and journalists shares the politics of the White House Mess and the Heritage Foundation. Actually, a lot of liberals have come to suspect the same thing. Slowly, though, the spell is breaking.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.