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Reagan: The Fruits of Success

Gambling with History: Ronald Reagan in the White House

by Laurence I. Barrett
Doubleday, 511 pp., $19.95

Reagan’s Ruling Class: Portraits of the President’s Top One Hundred Officials

by Ronald Brownstein, by Nina Easton
Pantheon, 759 pp., $9.95 (paper)


In the Cabinet Room of the West Wing of the White House, where tall leather chairs, one slightly taller than the rest, surround an oval table, each president hangs portraits of three predecessors, implying similarities the incumbent finds appropriate or flattering. Lincoln and Jefferson are traditional choices; but in place of Harry Truman, whom Jimmy Carter had retrieved from the White House storeroom, Ronald Reagan selected Calvin Coolidge.

The choice of Coolidge is a reminder of how potent the supply-side ideology was at the start of Reagan’s term. The principal case to be made for Coolidge was that his secretary of the treasury, Andrew Mellon, had overseen a reduction of the maximum income tax rate from 58 percent to 25. But everything else in Reagan’s campaign amounted to a promise to recapture Dwight Eisenhower’s 1950s, when the United States was at the zenith of its military and economic dominance, and when an American president last enjoyed a two-term reign.

Two-thirds of the way through his term, Ronald Reagan has proven more successful than Eisenhower at a comparable point in using the powers of office. With his repeated victories in the Congress, he has for the moment muted many theories about the impotent modern presidency. With his thorough vetting of political appointees, he has steered the permanent government more fully in his direction than most other recent presidents. He has been able to sound, as he chooses, either bipartisan and statesmanlike, as when arranging last year’s Social Security reforms, or ferociously partisan, as when defending his military plans. He has jettisoned appointees who proved troublesome, such as Ann Gorsuch Burford, yet stuck with others, such as Kenneth Adelman or William Casey, when he judged the opposition too weak to prevail. By replacing Richard Allen, his original national security adviser, with William Clark, and Alexander Haig with George Shultz, he offered an example “to future presidents…of the gains from changing a team that clearly was not working out,” I.M. Destler writes in The Reagan Presidency. “Kennedy reportedly worried that replacing Dean Rusk would be an admission of initial error; Carter never faced up to the incompatibility of Brzezinski and Vance. Reagan, by contrast, showed that a timely switch could bring benefits many times the short-run costs.”

Reagan has concentrated on a few tasks, instead of fighting fires. He is obviously ignorant of many of the details of government but unmistakably clear about his general intent. He has also enjoyed remarkable luck. More Americans died when the Soviet Union shot down the Korean passenger plane than would have been killed if the Iranian “students” had executed their American hostages one by one. But when it comes to the question of strategy, things are infinitely easier for a president once the blood has been shed and he need only choose the proper way of expressing outrage.

His adroitness to date does not necessarily mean that Reagan will be reelected or even that he will run. But it does suggest that his influence on the government must be assessed as the fruit of success, rather than as the consequence of frustration and failure, which was the case with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In the long-term effects of his skill in manipulating power, Ronald Reagan bears less resemblance to Eisenhower or Coolidge than to a man whose portrait will never hang in Reagan’s Cabinet Room, Lyndon Johnson.

The most consistent theme from Eisenhower’s term in office was his concern that the nation’s obligations not outstrip its resources. The federal deficit averaged only one half of 1 percent of the gross national product from 1955 to 1959, and this was mainly accounted for by a large recession-year deficit in 1959. At the very time when the United States was indisputably the world’s greatest military power, when it enjoyed an effective monopoly on nuclear weapons, Eisenhower declined to commit American forces at Dien Bien Phu, in Hungary, or at Suez. In those same years, of course, he approved covert American intervention in Iran and Central America. But his acquiescence to the CIA’s plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion was the only significant case in which he made commitments his successors would come to regret.

The caution of those years had many distasteful aspects. But in managing the government, Eisenhower’s determination that the nation be able to pay its way has much to commend it. The clearest contrast is with John Kennedy’s promise to “bear any burden” in the defense of liberty around the globe. As implemented by Lyndon Johnson, with his expansion of the American combat presence in 1965, this led to a commitment in Vietnam entirely out of proportion with the resources a comfortable liberal democracy could be expected to invest in a far-off guerrilla war.

It is impossible to know whether the Reagan administration’s commitments in Central America or, perhaps, Lebanon will ultimately be seen in the same light. But it is already clear that in its management of the nation’s finances, this administration, through all its legislative virtuosity, has gone further than its predecessors in making promises the nation cannot keep.


The pattern is clearest with military spending. As is well known, the administration is determined to devote more money to the military. The annual level of defense spending is supposed to rise by 40 percent (in real terms) between 1981 and 1985. At the beginning of that period, the military accounted for less than one quarter of the entire federal budget; by the end, it is expected to be more than one-third. Yet it is entirely possible that important parts of the military force will be smaller and less efficient at the end of this process than at the beginning, and it is inevitable that even these increases will prove inadequate to meet the goals the administration has set.

In his essay in The Reagan Presidency, Samuel Huntington points out that military spending proceeds in up-and-down cycles. During the “up” phase of the cycle, military and strategic doctrines change, indicating the need for an expanded force. Larger appropriations follow. During the “down” phase, there is concern about the pressure on the rest of the federal budget. The appropriations are scaled back, and so, eventually, is the doctrine.

Huntington says that the most recent “up” phase began during the last year of the Carter administration; indeed, he says that during its first year in office, the Reagan administration preferred to be criticized for having no strategy at all than to admit that it was merely moving more quickly along Carter’s path.1 The “down” stage is about to begin, as was predictable; but it will be devastating for the military because of deliberate choices built into the Reagan defense budgets.

The crucial decisions were made early in 1982, as the military budget for fiscal year 1983 was prepared. For the Pentagon budget there is often a sizable gap between “outlays,” the amount of money actually spent in a given year, and “total obligational authority,” which includes purchases authorized for future years. The more that large pieces of military equipment are authorized in a budget—ships, bomber fleets—the larger the gap, since the payments for equipment may not fall due for four or five years or more. Obligational authority does not count in calculating each year’s federal deficit; only the outlays actually made in that fiscal year do.

In the spring of 1982, this gap had great political significance. Since the administration and the Congress were mainly concerned about the size of the federal deficit in 1983, they concentrated on cutting commitments that would require immediate outlays. Caspar Weinberger and David Stockman struck a cynical deal. They reduced the outlays in the 1983 budget by $5.2 billion—but increased the obligational authority by $3.2 billion. This served Stockman’s ends, in helping to hold down the 1983 deficit, and Weinberger’s as well, in opening up room for several new weapons systems. Huntington drily remarks, “This could, of course, create great problems for Stockman or his successor in FY 1985 and FY 1986, but that was not Weinberger’s worry, and it did not seem to trouble Stockman either.”

We have already had a preview of what will happen to Stockman or his successor—really, to the military—when the contracts authorized in 1983 come due. A centerpiece of the military rebuilding plan is the “600-ship navy,” up from the 400-odd ships called for under the Carter administration’s final plans. Toward this end, the Navy’s ship-building budget has been increased by 80 percent since 1980.

As the editors of More Bucks, Less Bang, a collection of articles about military procurement,2 point out, the 1983 budget contained $4.2 billion for construction of six surface fighting vessels and ships to carry marines. They included three CG-47 guided missile cruisers, which will cost more than $1 billion each; two FFG-7 guided missile frigates, at $400 million each; and one LSD-41 Marine landing dock and cargo ship, also costing $400 million.

It might seem that, from the Navy’s perspective, more ships would always be to the good. But most of these new vessels, especially the billion-dollar guided-missile cruisers, exemplify the familiar modern preference for expensive but dubiously effective military systems. Some experts within the Navy contend that these ships would prove essentially useless in warfare, yet their views have been dismissed. More important, the way in which the “600-ship navy” is being financed almost guarantees that it will lead to a smaller force.

In the spring of 1982, as Congress was considering the budget that would authorize these ships, President Reagan, besieged by reports that deficits were out of control and by unexpected inflation in the budget, ordered the military to reduce some of its 1983 outlays. The Navy proposed a $249-million cut in its operating budget. But to do so, it had to remove from the fleet twenty-two ships, all of which had been scheduled for several more years of service and most of which had recently been refitted. Thirteen of the ships, for example, were destroyers, of which twelve had been overhauled (for $25 million apiece) within the previous three years. Five of the ships were LSD-28 landing dock ships that are externally almost identical to the one new LSD-41 being built for $400 million. Two-thirds of the cost of one new ship would have kept these twenty-two in service. Thus did this year’s progression toward a 600-ship navy actually result in a smaller fleet. (The Navy later restored operating funds for three of the ships.)

If anything is certain about the defense budgets of the next few years, it is that the funds for current operations and maintenance (known as O&M) will come under even greater pressure, because of the locked-in future purchases. When deficits must be reduced, it is far more complicated and costly to delay or cancel purchases than to reduce O&M by mothballing ships, decreasing training time, or cutting back on spare parts and fuel. Huntington notes that the military purchases proposed in the 1983 budget were 63.5 percent higher, in real terms, than in 1981. The operations and maintenance accounts, however, increased by only 14.5 percent. He says that future “limits on defense spending are also likely to have their principal immediate impact on [operations and maintenance]…. Readiness programs, consequently, are likely to face a crunch.”

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    Huntington, who served as an apparently frustrated consultant to the National Security Council during the Carter years, permits himself one cri de coeur: “Anyone familiar with the Carter administration knows full well that if it had remained in office it never would have achieved the defense-spending goals it set forth as it left office.”

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    More Bucks, Less Bang: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons, edited by Dina Rasor, published by the Fund for Constitutional Government, Washington, DC, $6.95.

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