Reagan's Comeback, Hart's Comeback
Jude Wanniski
December 17, 1987


At the Los Angeles Times Roundtable in Washington this week Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd was asked if, in view of the resurgence of RR's popularity as a result of his Summitry with Gorby, the President's "clout" would increase on Capitol Hill. Byrd made a face, lifted an eyebrow, and said, "Generically, no." But of course it already has. It has just begun to dawn on the Capitol that RR's handling of the summit was brilliant, that Gorby, who had come thinking he would cut a deal on SDI was totally outmaneuvered by RR, who heaped gushing praise on the Russian, announced that the Evil Empire was practically over as long as Gorbachev was at the helm, and sent him home with an empty bag. I met this week in the Capitol with about 20 of the hardest-line GOP congressmen around, and while they are still uncertain about why RR was so gushy to Gorby, they are mostly dumbfounded at the grass roots support for the INF treaty among their conservative constituents. Democrat Byrd was asked by a LA Times reporter if RR hadn't sounded like the Democrats in his dealings with Gorby, and if RR had changed. "The President is the same man he always was," Byrd said, with obvious begrudging but deep respect. "The President is a tough and stubborn man."

Not only have the jokes about RR suddenly stopped, but one senses a surge of anxiety about the President's sudden renewal of power. Elected officials inside the Beltway feel it first because they have the longest antennae. But the liberal Establishment also suddenly awoke to the fact that it now has a stake in Reagan. It seems to have inherited him from the right wing of the GOP, which abandoned him on the summit steps. And it has to be more respectful of his wishes on the entire agenda, because RR is headed to HIS summit with Gorby next summer! In a very real sense, in delivering the INF, Reagan has become the leader of the Establishment. The smell of power is back at the President's side almost as if the Iran-Contra affair had never occurred and it can translate into victories for RR across the board, both diplomatically and legislatively. The Congress will not now deny him support for the contras, especially in light of the Ortega brothers blustering about their 600,000-man army. Resistance to his anti-tax stance in the budget package has suddenly melted, with nothing left but smoke. His Supreme Court nominee is being treated like Prince Charming. The fears I have had that the Bakers would have to talk him into a bad trade bill in order to pacify the Democratic leadership have dwindled dramatically. There simply is not going to be the stomach on Capitol Hill to play savage hardball with a President who has achieved what seemed impossible six years ago, rolling back the Soviets to the status quo ante in the strategic nuclear theater while preserving SDI ~- which will also enjoy greater protection in this new milieu. This is not ephemeral as long as RR dangles the carrot of a bigger arms deal next year. RR's standing among his counterparts in the West has also shot up. We won't be hearing any more talk of Maggie Thatcher being the leader of the Big Five. A new dynamic can unfold out of all this on international economic coordination.

The right-wing intellectuals have not yet quite caught on to the fact that RR has recovered his administration at no cost but rhetoric and a few wet kisses on Gorbachev's pate, with Gorby having to explain his empty bag to the Politburo in terms of the investment he has made in Reagan! They also do not see that the American public understands the tremendous investment we have in Gorbachev, who may be the man to pull his country out of its Marxist-Leninist rut onto the kind of capitalist road Deng Xiao Peng has been traveling. Even the most skeptical conservatives understand that the West is just in the foothills of an enormous economic and technological expansion that threatens to leave the Soviets so far behind that they really become dangerous. Reagan has tapped into that wisdom in the general electorate, and as long as Gorby doesn't foul up on his end, RR is going to be handled very delicately by his liberal antagonists. One clear effect of the INF itself follows the predictions made at the outset by its supporters, like Irving Kristol, that the Europeans would begin moving to beef up their own defenses. The responsible Democrats in Congress, like Byrd, are suddenly sounding more concerned about the defense of Western Europe than I've seen in decades. Power abhors a vacuum.

The other news I choose to interpret positively is the re-entry of Gary Hart into the Democratic presidential contest. It is now my assumption that Hart will win the nomination, mainly because, despite all his shortcomings, he is still the best potential President in the field. He's carrying extra weights in his saddlebags, but he still has so much more horse than his competitors that he has to be considered the favorite. A key that I watched was the decision by The Washington Post NOT to run with the story and photos it has on a second Hart affair, the material that supposedly drove him from the race last spring.

Hart's re-entry was done extremely well, he has handled his intense grillings on TV. But most important he has his wife Lee and children at his side, which signals to the American people that reconciliation at that level is complete. I'm almost certain that if Hart showed up sans family the Post would have run with its material. Now it would be a slap in Lee Hart's face, a hammerblow to the family that was braced for it. This ain't journalism and Ben Bradlee wisely pulled away.

Hart's entry will be a positive for the whole election process, producing a stronger President in the end because the level of debate will be elevated at the issue level, once the press corps runs out of things to say about monkey business. Hart is the only true free trader in the field, the only anti-austerity Democrat in the field, and, except for Jesse Jackson the only contender who thinks for himself. The rest of the gang I characterize as wooden-headed marionettes on strings, checking out public-opinion polls before deciding what they think. Hart and Jackson are the only "real boys," to use a Disney metaphor, a little different than the Seven Dwarfs.

It's of course not too late for Hart to win; in a real sense the race hasn't even started. More than 90% of the electorate hasn't even thought about the campaign yet. The betting public won't start filtering into the track until January, and what happens until then is mostly exercise. My assumption remains that the GOP nomination will go to Jack Kemp, who seems to have been written out of the race by the same political writers who tell us that the voters have barely looked at the field. There are more "real boys" on the GOP side, Kemp and Bob Dole among them (George Bush is the archtype of the marionette), but it does not make sense to me that Dole's central message of "bitter medicine" will play to the racetrack crowd.

As you can see from this pre-Christmas missive, I am feeling better than I was before the summit, never dreaming that Reagan would come through as well as he did, his administration re-energized. Happy Holidays!