President Reagan's failure to reach an arms control accord with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Iceland, coming on the heels of several other setbacks, may halt at least temporarily the political good fortune that has followed Reagan for most of his six years in office, political analysts said Monday.
"His luck on the economy, in defense and in international relations was all based on . . . the contrast with what was sensed to be a failure before," said James David Barber, a presidential scholar at Duke University, who believes that Reagan has benefited from comparison to Jimmy Carter's troubled presidency.
As Carter's presidency recedes into the past, Reagan must compete with his own perceived successes. "His luck probably should have run out a long time ago," said Barber.
Setbacks, Then Triumphs
In his early years in the White House, Reagan was blessed with falling world oil prices--a striking contrast to the three-fold price increase of the late 1970s that fueled the inflationary spiral of the Carter era. Reagan also took advantage of opportunities, as when he broke the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981.
His setbacks were frequently followed by triumphs: The 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut came two days before the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
But in the last two weeks, a series of mostly unrelated events has thrown Reagan on the defensive in the foreign policy arena. After promising not to swap an accused Soviet spy for American correspondent Nicholas Daniloff, Reagan had to defend what was clearly a trade involving the two men. As conservatives assailed him for selling out his principles in the Daniloff case, the Republican-controlled Senate weighed in with an overwhelming overriding of his veto of sanctions against South African.
Reagan's standing suffered further with the disclosure of an Administration disinformation plan to undermine Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi by planting false stories in the news media.
Next, the Administration was linked to a downed C-123 cargo plane in Nicaragua that was involved in a secret operation to supply weapons to the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras.
Praise From Republicans
The most recent episode--the failure of the summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to produce an arms control agreement or other substantive results--is not viewed everywhere as a negative. Many Republicans are praising Reagan for rejecting Gorbachev's demand that he abandon his "Star Wars" missile defense program.
Haley Barbour, a White House political aide, believes that Reagan's televised explanation of what happened in Reykjavik will convince the public that he did the right thing in spurning the Soviet offer. "Most people will view this as the President not being willing to make a bad deal," said Barbour.
Many Democrats condemn the President, however, for an unyielding anti-communism that blocked efforts to make the world less vulnerable to nuclear catastrophe.
"I think he's made a horrible mistake," said Jody Powell, who was Carter's press secretary. Powell believes that Reagan missed a golden opportunity to trade historic cuts in the superpower arsenals for concessions on "Star Wars," as the Administration's Strategic Defense Initiative is popularly known.
'May Not Be Irretrievable'
"It may not be irretrievable," Powell added, saying he believes that Reagan might be persuaded to reconsider if there were sufficient pressure from Congress.
White House officials launched a public relations offensive Monday. They emphasized the far-reaching proposals put on the table in Reykjavik and the potential for reaching agreement down the road. "He's an old labor leader," Barbour said of Reagan. "You can't even negotiate a union contract over the weekend."
While the public may rally around Reagan in the aftermath of his confrontation with Gorbachev, the President has chosen a course that rules out, at least in the short term, an arms control agreement with the Soviets. His refusal to compromise on "Star Wars," coupled with his futile opposition to tougher sanctions against South Africa, could widen the gap between Reagan's personal popularity and support for his policies, some analysts say.
Career Built on Rhetoric
Reagan has built a political career on strong rhetoric and staunch positions, but in the end he has usually been willing to compromise. This was not the case in Reykjavik. Reagan also held uncharacteristically firm on the South African sanctions, a decision that resulted in his worst foreign policy defeat on Capitol Hill.
Martin D. Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reflected the view of many Democrats and Republicans:
"It never occurred to me 'Star Wars' wasn't a bargaining chip. I always figured Reagan would pay lip service to it right down to the end, but once he got a good deal on the table, it would be 'So long, Star Wars.' This was a hell of a time to decide to give something to the right wing."
Times staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.