At first I thought that House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (D-Mass.) had unfurled the white flag of surrender at his post-inaugural meeting with President Ronald Reagan. O’Neill told the president that “in my 50 years of public life I’ve never seen a man more popular than you are with the American people.” This is the same Tip O’Neill who called Reagan lazy, cruel and uninformed at various times last year. What has happened? Has O’Neill, the capital’s highest ranking Democrat, put to bed the party of the opposition when he assured the President that “we’re not going to be obstructionist in any manner?”
Not likely. O’Neill has become a political fox. Privately he believes that Reagan is popular like Bob Hope is popular only that the former actor uses stirring slogans on television instead of jokes. The Speaker also believes that Reagan hoodwinked about 15 percent of regular Democrats with his rhetoric to pile up that total against Mondale.
In 1981 and 1982 O’Neill took a lot of heat for standing in the way of Reagan until the House Republicans allied with enough right-wing Democrats (the Bo-called Boll Weevils) swiftly passed the budget with very little Congressional scrutiny. The budget resolution was rushed through the House even before the typographical errors and a secretary’s home telephone number were deleted.
Here is O’Neill’s strategy: let the people of this country really see Reagan being Reagan unexpurgated. Let each of Reagan’s budget cuts and budget wastes be given a full hearing by the House Committees. He would like to see the House Budget Committee have televised hearings in the evening to reach millions of viewers. Let the veterans see what Mr. Reagan has in store for them…and the medicare recipients, the students, the small businesses, consumers, workers and the other constituencies who may have been tempted by Mr. Reagan’s “Miller-Time” campaign presentations.
Let the people see people just like themselves testifying before the House about the Reagan philosophy of the rich getting richer, the giant corporations getting more powerful and the rest of America paying the bills. O’Neill wants to have Reagan seen without a Democratic filter or opposition for a few weeks.
Other experiences irritated the usually genial Speaker. Two thirds of the students voting in November from his alma mater Boston College went for Reagan. Let them see what Reagan wants to do to education and student financial aid, he suggests. Over twenty states are reporting budget surpluses and many are considering tax refunds. Then let state officials stop wailing about decreases in federal grants and revenue sharing, making the Congress take the heat, while these officials register political credits with the people because of state tax refunds.
O’Neill sees a coming collision, or at least some prolonged friction, between Senate Republicans who want necessary cuts in the waste and duplication of the military budget and Ronald Reagan who wants to continue throwing masses of dollars at defense. It was his own Republicans, Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and William Roth (R-DE) who documented and criticized the Pentagon — industrial complex’s shockingly wasteful ways. Remember the $7500 coffee maker and the $450 simple hammer. Those were just small potatoes. The cannyBostonian thinks that if the Democrats lay back, the Republican squabbles will be even more pronounced and visible.
In 1980 Reagan promised to balance the budget by 1983. His budget deficits have since become the stuff of horrid legends. At $200 billion a year of red ink, Mr. Reagan will have tripled the national debt in 8 short years all the way to $3.1 trillion by January 1989.
In 1984, you may recall that Mr. Reagan did not even promise to balance the budget during his second term — not because he can’t but because he won’t. To balance the budget, he would have to apply some thrift to defense expenditures, remove billions of dollars of federal handouts to corporations, fill the gaping tax loopholes that have withered away most of the corporate and super rich revenue contribution to support our government, reduce health care costs under medicare and make sure that Uncle Sam gets adequate royalties from its mineral lessees.
To do these things, Reagan would have to have the desire and courage to stand up to the power elites who have been feeding at the federal trough for so many years. Since he is their emissary, it is very unlikely that he will develop such a Presidential determination.
He is a genuinely weak man, masquerading as a White House John Wayne, and that is why the country will sink further into debt, trade deficits, unemployment and a coming inflation-recession. By the time the debt consequences explode throughout the land, however, he may be back at his California ranch letting ni s successor take the avalanched.
Nobody says Ronald Reagan is not lucky.