"Go Ahead--Make My Day"

  • "I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead--make my day."

    --Ronald Reagan, to the American Business Conference

    The threat was one that Reagan had voiced many times before. But the words, echoing a celebrated Clint Eastwood line, marked a new high in cocky combativeness, even for a President who has never been exactly deficient in that quality. Both the business executives who greeted the dare with applause and laughter and the members of the Senate Budget Committee at whom it was aimed were aware that Reagan was mockingly embracing the very swaggering-cowboy image his detractors have long been trying to pin on him.*

    The line was accompanied by some less public but even sharper whip cracking. Before the President spoke, his aides had begun passing a disconcerting message to the 22 Republican Senators who will be up for re-election in 1986. Its essence: how much help Reagan gives them now in raising campaign funds, and later by making speaking tours through their states, will depend heavily on how much they cooperate in shaping a fiscal-1986 budget to the President's liking.

    The pressures had some effect. The Senate Budget Committee had already rejected two proposals to raise taxes before Reagan's speech, but it also voted down a resolution embodying Reagan's proposals. Only hours after his talk, though, it began passing considerably deeper cuts in non-military spending than it had been willing to accept before. Finally, the committee's Republicans pushed through on a party-line vote of 11 to 9 a resolution aimed at slashing projected outlays next fiscal year by $55 billion, to $966 billion --a slightly deeper reduction than the White House had asked. Said Wisconsin Senator Robert Kasten, one of the Republicans

    preparing for a 1986 campaign: "President Reagan should feel we have done our best."

    But in Reagan's view that "best" is sure to seem nowhere near good enough. The resolution provides $11 billion less for the Pentagon than the White House wants, and it merely reduces some programs the President wants to eliminate, such as mass-transit subsidies and revenue-sharing grants to cities (revenue sharing would expire in two years under the Senate plan). So Reagan will have ample opportunity in future congressional battles to display the uncompromising spirit he showed last week. There seems little doubt that he will.

    On issue after issue since his second term began--loan guarantees for farmers, the MX missile, aid to the Nicaraguan contras--the President has been talking almost as tough as he does on taxes. He left no doubt that his approach is deliberate. Addressing the Magazine Publishers Association the morning after his "make my day" speech, Reagan noted, "Some stories recently (have suggested that) remarks of mine on taxes and defense and freedom in our hemisphere have been--well, shall we say, plain and direct." The stories, the President happily confirmed, were entirely correct: "We have an obligation now to be as candid as we were last fall when these issues were very clearly debated and, I think, emphatically decided by the people." It was an example of the way he has been invoking his overwhelming reelection as a mandate for all his stands, whether or not he discussed them much during the campaign.

    In dealing with foreign powers too the President has been self-confident and assertive. Secretary of State George Shultz last week had barely begun to list the pros and cons of the President's going to Moscow to attend the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko and meet the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, when, seeing Reagan's wry smile, he stopped and said to the President, "I can tell by the look on your face . . ." Reagan interjected, "Yes, but go on." To no one's surprise, the President decided not to go--because, explained a senior aide, Gorbachev "is not yet ready" for a meeting. But Reagan did invite Gorbachev to a summit whenever the Soviet leader is ready, and this time without the usual stress on careful preparation and strong prospects of agreement.

    While thus sounding a cautious overture to an adversary, Reagan did not shy away from disappointing a key friend in the Middle East. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called at the White House to make an impassioned plea for the U.S. to resume active efforts to mediate an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. He urged Reagan to invite a JordanianPalestinian delegation to Washington to discuss procedures and proposals.

    Reagan's reply was a polite but very firm no. He repeated what has become the standard U.S. position over the past year: Washington will not engage itself again until it is sure that both Arabs and Israelis are ready for direct, productive negotiations, and it is still a long way from being convinced.

    Mubarak gambled that he could change the President's mind in part because he genuinely fears that a chance to reopen negotiations is slipping away, and in part because he reasoned that a re-elected Reagan would be more willing to risk an initiative that might offend American supporters of Israel. His miscalculation drew the expectable jeers from radical Arabs: the Libyan news agency JANA scoffed that his reception in Washington had lowered Mubarak "to his natural position as an employee of the U.S. State Department." Reagan sought to soften the blow by lavishing praise on Mubarak's peace efforts, but the Egyptian President charged in a speech to the National Press Club that Reagan was taking "an almost defeatist approach."

    Defeatist is about the last word that anyone would apply to Reagan's attitude on any other issue. The President has begun his second term with a clear set of goals: shrinking the role of Government in the economy and reducing the deficit by slashing nonmilitary spending; simplifying but not --horrors!--raising taxes; stabilizing relations with the Soviets through arms reductions, but without giving up the MX or his Star Wars plan; preventing the spread of Communism, especially in Central America. His re- election sweep has bolstered his already high confidence that the public will support him.

    Reagan also feels a new sense of urgency about translating these goals into reality. "He's got 3 1/2 more years to make his niche in history," observes Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, an ally and admirer. Others suspect there may be less time than that, perhaps only until the 1986 midterm elections, before the President's clout is vitiated by his lame-duck status. In any case, says one White House aide, "the advice we were given coming into the second term was 'Don't give in or they'll run all over you.' If we're not tough now, we'll never have a chance to be."

    Reagan aides nonetheless insist that there has been no real change in the President. His beliefs, they say, are about what they always have been, and he is voicing them pretty much the way he always has, only more frequently, more publicly and with less filtering by the White House staff. Put another way, there is no new Reagan but there is a new Regan: Donald Regan, who swapped jobs with James Baker at the beginning of the second term to become White House chief of staff while Baker took Regan's old post as Secretary of the Treasury. In the White House, Baker often counseled compromise. Regan conceives his job to be one of making sure that the President's will literally becomes law. To see that this gets done the old Marine lieutenant colonel is shaping a hierarchical, spit-and-polish organization.

    There are fewer tales of infighting and turf wars now than in the Baker days, and decisions come faster. "In the old White House," says a veteran, "people always had an interest in projecting their role in the decision- making process. It was a way of maintaining one's position in power. Under Regan, that is the best way to work your way out of a job." Remarks another aide: "Don watches the way the President is going and moves; Jim Baker might have tried to steer him somewhat."

    Regan insists there is as much spirited debate as ever while the boss is making up his mind on policy. But the chief of staff is adamant that there be no debate whatever after the President's decision has been reached. And nowadays, at least in dealing with Congress, that decision is often combative. Regan has apparently encouraged his boss in that approach. To the staff, says one member, Regan "has maintained that we follow that macho line all the way through." But there is no doubt who is the original source of the line, and his last name is spelled with two a's. Says an adviser: "It's Reagan being Reagan."

    FOOTNOTE: *The crack "Go ahead--make my day" was originally spoken by Eastwood to a gunman he was holding at bay with a .44 Magnum in the 1983 movie Sudden Impact. It reappeared last fall in a parody of the New York Post put together by editors, most of them anti-Reagan, who imagined the President starting a nuclear war by throwing down that dare to the Kremlin. When Reagan was shown last week's Post, which used the same headline on a story about his speech, says an aide, "the President got the biggest boost out of that."