Even by the standards of fiscal debates, last week's White House meeting between Ronald Reagan and congressional budget negotiators was unusually tense. The legislators, brought together to work out a compromise, traded charges of stubbornness and irresponsibility. Republicans were dismayed when Reagan caved in to Democratic pressure and rescinded their hard-won limits on Social Security increases. The President, usually a model of affability, blew up when the subject of taxes arose. "Damn it," he cried, slamming down his pencil, "I can't listen to all this." In the midst of the imbroglio sat one remarkably serene and smiling figure: David Stockman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the straight-shooting point man of the Reagan Revolution. He could afford to be calm. After more than four years of sound and fury, he had just announced his departure from Government for the far more lucrative realm of Wall Street.
The resignation, to take effect at the end of this month, was not unexpected. Indeed, the real surprise may be not that Stockman left but that he lasted so long. Particularly after his rival Donald Regan became White House chief of staff last January, Stockman's days were numbered. Yet unfortunately for the White House, the announcement coincided with the climax of negotiations on the budget for fiscal 1986. "The timing was very awkward," said one official. "It added a complication at a very delicate moment." It came during a week in which Reagan threw in the towel on restraining middle-class entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, leaving Congressmen groping with illusory savings and phony numbers (see following story) in their efforts to pretend to cut the deficit.
With Stockman's departure the President is losing the man most responsible for translating into reality his vision of a shrunken domestic role for the Federal Government and the last powerful crusader for drastic measures to reduce the deficit. Stockman combined an instinctive feel for fiscal policy, an unmatched understanding of budgetary fine print and a sharp sense of legislative tactics. His gutsy advocacy of severe cuts in politically sacred programs, ranging from school lunches to farm subsidies to military pensions, was often labeled draconian and infuriated members of both parties. Also unsettling, particularly to the President, was the blunt and brilliant Budget Director's penchant for candor, which arose from his loyalty to what he considered to be the truth, as embodied in facts and figures, rather than to ideological nostrums.
But time and again Stockman's mastery of his job compensated for the controversy he caused, and the announcement of his departure was the cue for a bipartisan chorus of praise. "He was the only one who really knew the numbers," said Congressman Tony Coelho, a California Democrat. New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called him "the most effective OMB Director we've ever had."[*] Even the Washington Post's editorialists, often critical of Stockman's cuts, commended him "for a kind of intellectual and moral integrity that is rarely found in national public life." Stockman was bemused by the shower of accolades. "I never knew I had so many well-wishers until I decided to leave," he quipped. "Now I know why they write obituaries."