WASHINGTON HAS President Reagan had a change of heart or is he simply trying to reposition himself for the 1984 election, projecting an image of concern and compassion to rebut the ”Reagan Hood” charge that he robs the poor to help the rich? The evidence that he has moderated his views is circumstantial, gleaned from his recent speeches. Reviewing it, many political observers consider the apparent shift tactical, not ideological. They also consider it characteristic of incumbents.
After trying to abolish the Department of Education, Mr. Reagan suddenly began to crusade for excellence in education in June. In July he stressed commitment to civil rights in a flurry of lawsuits, legislative proposals and speeches. This month, he announced he would establish a task force to study hunger in America, after repeatedly insisting that food assistance be ”retargeted” in a way that would cut benefits.
And last week, he continued conciliatory gestures to Hispanic organizations in yet another of many recent campaign-style addresses, this one to an audience in Los Angeles. Two weeks ago, he indicated that he favored ”effective” bilingual programs for schoolchildren who did not speak English. In the past, he had tried to scrap Federal rules requiring them.
His effort to improve his political standing among women flagged when Barbara Honegger, a Justice Department political appointee, resigned, denouncing a project to eliminate sex discrimination from Federal and state laws as a ”sham.” A White House spokesman diagnosed the problem as one of ”misperception.” The Republican National Committee’s prompt hiring of the President’s daughter, Maureen Reagan, as a consultant to improve his image among women seemed likely to have less immediate effect than an Administration spokesman’s dismissals of Miss Honneger as ”a low-level Munchkin.”
”I do not think Reagan is changing in any fundamental ideological sense,” James MacGregor Burns, professor of political science at Williams College, said. ”Tactically, he is obviously bending here and there to meet specific situations. But it’s cosmetic, it’s not a fundamental change in Reagan or his doctrine.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Burns noted, would periodically declare a ”breathing spell” and occasionally make concessions to business before heading off again in a more liberal direction.
‘Dealing With Reality’
Nelson W. Polsby, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, said he would not call Mr. Reagan’s new tack ”a flip- flop or disloyalty to one’s ideals.” ”It’s just dealing with reality,” Mr. Polsby said. ”He is running for re-election, not for renomination. Any person in his position has to recognize the constraints of the political system. He has to get elected by an electorate that is considerably to the left of the Republican heartland.”
Herbert Stein, the economist who was a member of President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers, called Mr. Nixon’s surprise decision to impose wage and price controls in 1971 ”a very radical shift, much more radical than anything Mr. Reagan has done so far.” But Mr. Stein was more willing than other commentators to believe that Mr. Reagan had a capacity for growth.
”He learns a lot of things as President that he never knew before,” Mr. Stein said. ”It’s perfectly proper for him to change his mind. The question is, how intelligently does he adapt to the situation that he discovers and that emerges. As a practical matter, he has learned that you do not increase the revenue by cutting taxes, that there are not tens and hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, fraud and extravagance that can be cut without sacrifice by anyone.” Still, one theme runs consistently through any oscillations in rhetoric: Mr. Reagan is extremely reluctant to approve moves that would cost more money. On civil rights, for example, the tone of his speeches may be somewhat different. But he vetoed a bill that would have provided $20 million to help desegregate the public schools of Chicago under a court order. The court, he said, had usurped the constitutional power of the President and Congress to determine spending priorities. In its formal appeal last week of a Federal district judge’s order to hand over money for Chicago, the Justice Department argued that there were simply no more funds available.
Mr. Reagan contends that most of the budget changes adopted by Congress at his request slowed the rate of growth in Federal spending, but did not cut outlays in absolute terms. But the changes have been substantial when compared with the amounts that would have been spent under the laws that existed when he took office. The Congressional Budget Office said last week that the cutbacks totaled 60 percent in employment and training, 18 percent in education and social service and 28 percent in child nutrition. Striking a theme the Democrats are expected to press, Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. said the report ”cuts through the smokescreen of Reagan public relations to the harsh truth of the Reagan record.”
President Reagan runs at least two political risks in openly wooing groups more closely identified with the Democrats than the Republicans. He is dampening the enthusiasm of conservatives who worked so hard for his election in 1980. And he encourages judgment by standards alien to his career, and standards to which he can never measure up as well as a Democrat.