WHAT SHOULD REAGAN DO NOW?

We cannot, and we will not, let this stop us from getting on with the business of governing.

President Reagan made that comment last week on the Iran arms scandal as he ticked off a list of domestic policy initiatives that his administration is considering.Few here would quarrel with the wisdom of that comment; the nation has business that clearly needs doing.

But fewer still would give the wish implicit in that comment - that things

somehow could go on as usual - much chance for fulfillment.

It's probably too late for that to happen.

It's probably too late because the early conventional wisdom that the Iran arms affair isn't another Watergate has begun to erode in one critical respect. As time and investigations went on, that earlier scandal demanded more and more of the government's attention and increasingly hindered the process of governing; we seem headed for a replay that will last for who knows how long.

An independent counsel is about to be appointed and will require time to investigate and report.

Congressional committees have begun taking testimony on aspects of the transactions. More of them, including the special panels, will start up when Congress returns in January.

Criminal proceedings could follow and the media will be present throughout.

A time for government as usual? At times, the net effect may be more like trying to conduct a corporate planning meeting with Internal Revenue Service auditors somewhere in the building, your banker waiting impatiently in the lobby and a television investigating team pulling up outside.

And the division of the administration's attention won't be its only problem. The revelations out of the investigations cited will compete with other governmental developments, usually very successfully, for the attention of Congress and the public. Often, those disclosures will take us back to a landscape familiar from previous administrations, Credibility Gap.

In movie terms, the president and his supporting cast will find themselves starring in a simultaneous double feature, trying to play the good guys in one film while stuck with villainous or comic roles in the other.

Are such gloomy prospects avoidable? Not entirely, but the president could do a great deal to minimize their impact.

The president, for example, could explain the details of his own advance knowledge of the affair and the actions he personally took in regard to it.

To the extent that there were gaps in that knowledge, it's hard to believe that by now Mr. Reagan hasn't asked his close aides to fill those gaps. He could share the answers - and any other information his considerable powers can reach - with the rest of the country now, rather than have them pried out by congressional investigators later.

The president also could let his chief of staff, Donald Regan, go, but not as a scapegoat for the Iran affair. Mr. Regan could leave for the simple reason that the occupant of his office must be a key figure in dealing with Congress in an effort at continued governance and there seem to be few left on Capitol Hill who still think Mr. Regan can fill that role.

If there are no other suitable candidates who could take the post quickly, Treasury Secretary James Baker III could be brought back to be chief of staff again. It may be easier to find a new Treasury secretary than someone with his record in working with Congress.

Finally, the president could make a more meaningful effort to draw the attention of the country and the Congress to the areas where government action is needed now.

One possibility, deliberately less showy than anything that could be labeled a domestic economic summit, would be a simple invitation by the president to the congressional leadership of both parties to begin meeting with him and his top aides on the budget and trade deficits as soon as possible.

The goal would be finding whatever common ground exists or can be negotiated on handling those two critical issues in order to reduce the chances for later stalemates. And the offer might be one the Democrats couldn't refuse.

While even such quiet gatherings of political eagles still would draw public attention, they also can be justified on the practical ground that something like them probably would have been necessary, even without the Iran arms affair, to make real progress on the deficits this year.

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