21st Century Conservatives, Ronald Reagan, and the Problem of Political Amnesia

This is not about the current political climate or the Obama Administration and its endeavors. I’m not arguing for or against the Obama Administration or its policies because that is not the point of interest. Let me repeat: the point is not who is promoting good or bad policies (Democrats or Republicans), the effects of those policies, or any thing of the sort.

On the contrary, the interest here is fundamentally a point of history. In George Orwell’s 1984, the “Ministry of Truth” rewrote history to match whatever “the Party” declared, no matter its objective truth. In a recent article, Peter Beinart notes that a number of conservatives refuse to be outdone by Orwell’s fictional group and this is manifest in the party’s historical revisionism of the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Beinart writing over at The Daily Beast describes what he calls “The Republicans’ Reagan Amnesia.”

Republicans love hallowing Ronald Reagan’s name. Too bad they know so little about the guy.

Last week in Hawaii, the Republican National Committee almost passed a resolution named after the Gipper. “Whereas President Ronald Reagan believed that the Republican Party should support and espouse conservative principles and public policies,” it declared, only candidates who complied with eight of 10 “Reaganite” principles would be eligible for party funds.

The GOP isn’t as close to a political rebirth as its boosters believe.

And what were those principles, exactly? No. 1—according to the resolution—was “smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes.” Let’s take those from the top. Smaller government: Federal employment grew by 61,000 during Reagan’s presidency—in part because Reagan created a whole new cabinet department, the department of veterans affairs. (Under Bill Clinton, by contrast, federal employment dropped by 373,000). Smaller deficits and debt: Both nearly tripled on Reagan’s watch. Lower taxes: Although Reagan muscled through a major tax cut in 1981, he followed up by raising taxes in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986. In 1983, in fact, he not only raised payroll taxes; he raised them to pay for Social Security and Medicare. Let’s put this in language today’s tea-baggers can understand: Reagan raised taxes to pay for government-run health care.

Then there’s plank number five: Reaganite candidates must “oppos[e] amnesty for illegal immigrants.” Really? Because if you look up the word “amnesty” in Black’s Law Dictionary, you’ll find a reference to the 1986 bill that Reagan signed, which ended up granting amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants.

Then there’s foreign policy. Plank number six demands that candidates back the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what did Reagan do in his biggest confrontation with jihadist terror? When Hezbollah murdered 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut in 1983, the Gipper didn’t surge; he withdrew the remaining American troops, and fast. Plank number 7 calls for “effective [read military] action to eliminate” Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. But Reagan condemned Israel’s 1981 preventive strike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor. And plank number nine requires steadfast opposition to abortion. Yet two of Reagan’s three Supreme Court nominees voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. Turns out this Reagan guy wasn’t really that Reaganite after all.

Why does this Republican amnesia about Reagan matter? Because it shows that the GOP isn’t as close to a political rebirth as its boosters believe. Reagan succeeded because he married a reputation for principle with an instinct for pragmatism. When Republicans lost big in the 1982 midterm elections because Democrats accused them of wanting to privatize Social Security, Reagan abandoned the idea and instead made a deal with Democrats that raised taxes and saved the program. In 1984, when his advisers told him that Americans considered him too warlike, he responded with a series of breathtakingly dovish speeches about his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons that helped ensure his landslide re-election. In 1981, he nominated the socially moderate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, even though Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders cried betrayal.

That was the real Reagan, the one Republicans need to embrace if they’re to genuinely threaten Barack Obama’s chances of re-election. Instead, they’ve reinvented the Gipper as a Sarah Palin-style zealot. Party activists always want to believe they can win elections without compromising their ideological purity, and the GOP’s recent string of off-year victories has convinced the conservative base that most Americans are tea-baggers at heart. But the tea-bag movement is dominated by graying white Anglos, at a time when the American electorate is growing less white, less Anglo and less gray. Demographically, American politics is being transformed by the dramatic growth of Hispanics, and by the emergence of a vast (and heavily non-white) “millennial” generation, larger in number than the baby boomers. Both groups went heavily for the Democrats in 2004 and 2008. And in their economic and cultural views, both are light years away from the tea-bag GOP.

These realities will be easy to overlook this year, because minorities and the young turn out in lower numbers in midterm elections, and because when unemployment is at 10 percent, the party in power suffers no matter what. But ultimately, the GOP’s fortunes will rest on its capacity to make inroads in these two groups. The angry white geezer vote alone won’t do it.

That’s why many of the smartest conservative intellectuals—from David Brooks to David Frum to Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam—believe the GOP must become less ideologically doctrinaire. In this effort, the real Ronald Reagan could be a useful model. Of course, were he around today, he’d have a tough time getting funding from the RNC.

Michael Kinsley says much of the same in his take on “Reagan’s Record”:

The economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s was double-digit inflation. Double-digit interest rates and a double-dip recession were the medicine we took to cure it. The doctor who administered the medicine was Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Volcker was appointed by President Jimmy Carter, who fecklessly allowed inflation to develop and then (nobly? naively?) sacrificed his presidency to stop it. Reagan deserves a couple of points for not complaining too much as Volcker twisted the tourniquet. But Reagan’s ultimate thanks was to deny Volcker the third term he wanted.

Reagan hagiographers don’t even have a theory, beyond raw assertion, to explain how their man is supposed to have stopped inflation. They are happy enough to blame the pain of the actual cure on his predecessor while claiming credit for the prosperity that followed. That triumph and that prosperity—a record of economic growth over eight years second only to Clinton’s!—helped to renew the country’s spirit (as did the force of Reagan’s sunny personality and our great victory over the island superpower of Grenada). But what caused the prosperity?

Two things that clearly did not cause it are smaller government and lower taxes, because this legendary Reagan revolution barely happened. Federal government spending was a quarter higher in real terms when Reagan left office than when he entered. As a share of GDP, the federal government shrank from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent—a whopping one percentage point. The federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 million to 3 million. (Yes, it increased even if you exclude Defense Department civilians. And, no, assuming a year or two of lag time for a president’s policies to take effect doesn’t materially change any of these results.)

Under eight years of Big Government Bill Clinton, to choose another president at random, the federal civilian work force went down from 2.9 million to 2.68 million. Federal spending grew by 11 percent in real terms—less than half as much as under Reagan. As a share of GDP, federal spending shrank from 21.5 percent to 18.3 percent—more than double Reagan’s reduction, ending up with a federal government share of the economy about a tenth smaller than Reagan left behind.

And taxes? Federal tax collections rose about a fifth in real terms under Reagan. As a share of GDP, they declined from 19.6 percent to 18.3 percent. After Clinton, they are up to 20 percent. It’s hard to think of variations in this narrow range as revolutionary one way or the other. For most working Americans, the share of income going to taxes (including FICA) went up even under Reagan.

Reagan enthusiasts say that what matters is marginal rates, which did decline significantly during his tenure. Of course, rates rose significantly under Clinton, which doesn’t seem to have done the economy any harm. Critics say that if Reagan’s tax cuts fed the 1980s prosperity, it was as an old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus, caused by the huge deficits the cuts produced. It’s easy to throw a party if you’re willing to triple the national debt.

But even if Reagan’s defenders are right that lower marginal rates were key, they’re misstating history a bit to give Reagan credit. The most dramatic rate reductions came in the tax reform of 1986. This bipartisan effort—led by Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley—was a response to public outrage at revelations that Reagan’s earlier tax cuts had left many wealthy individuals and profitable corporations paying no taxes at all.

Sheldon L. Richman, writing for the Mises Institute monthly (a think tank for libertarian political theory) didn’t even look so favorably of Reagan back in 1998, for economic reasons at that.

In 1980, Jimmy Caner’s last year as president, the federal government spent a whopping 27.9% of “national income” (an obnoxious term for the private wealth produced by the American people). Reagan assaulted the free-spending Carter administration throughout his campaign in 1980. So how did the Reagan administration do? At the end of the first quarter of 1988, federal spending accounted for 28.7% of “national income.”

Even Ford and Carter did a better job at cutting government. Their combined presidential terms account for an increase of 1.4%—compared with Reagan’s 3%—in the government’s take of “national income.” And in nominal terms, there has been a 60% increase in government spending, thanks mainly to Reagan’s requested budgets, which were only marginally smaller than the spending Congress voted.

The budget for the Department of Education, which candidate Reagan promised to abolish along with the Department of Energy, has more than doubled to $22.7 billion, Social Security spending has risen from $179 billion in 1981 to $269 billion in 1986. The price of farm programs went from $21.4 billion in 1981 to $51.4 billion in 1987, a 140% increase. And this doesn’t count the recently signed $4 billion “drought-relief” measure. Medicare spending in 1981 was $43.5 billion; in 1987 it hit $80 billion. Federal entitlements cost $197.1 billion in 1981—and $477 billion in 1987.

Foreign aid has also risen, from $10 billion to $22 billion. Every year, Reagan asked for more foreign-aid money than the Congress was willing to spend. He also pushed through Congress an $8.4 billion increase in the U.S. “contribution” to the International Monetary Fund.

His budget cuts were actually cuts in projected spending, not absolute cuts in current spending levels. As Reagan put it, “We’re not attempting to cut either spending or taxing levels below that which we presently have.”

The result has been unprecedented government debt. Reagan has tripled the Gross Federal Debt, from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion. Ford and Carter in their combined terms could only double it. It took 31 years to accomplish the first postwar debt tripling, yet Reagan did it in eight.

If we look at government revenues as a percentage of “national income,” we find little change from the Carter days, despite heralded “tax cuts.” In 1980, revenues were 25.1% of “national income.” In the first quarter of 1988 they were 24.7%.

Reagan came into office proposing to cut personal income and business taxes. The Economic Recovery Act was supposed to reduce revenues by $749 billion over five years. But this was quickly reversed with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. TEFRA—the largest tax increase in American history—was designed to raise $214.1 billion over five years, and took back many of the business tax savings enacted the year before. It also imposed withholding on interest and dividends, a provision later repealed over the president’s objection.

But this was just the beginning. In 1982 Reagan supported a five-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and higher taxes on the trucking industry. Total increase: $5.5 billion a year. In 1983, on the recommendation of his Spcial Security Commission— chaired by the man he later made Fed chairman, Alan Green-span—Reagan called for, and received, Social Security tax increases of $165 billion over seven years. A year later came Reagan’s Deficit Reduction Act to raise $50 billion.

Even the heralded Tax Reform Act of 1986 is more deception than substance. It shifted $120 billion over five years from visible personal income taxes to hidden business taxes. It lowered the rates, but it also repealed or reduced many deductions.

According to the Treasury Department, the 1981 tax cut will have reduced revenues by $1.48 trillion by the end of fiscal 1989. But tax increases since 1982 will equal $1.5 trillion by 1989. The increases include not only the formal legislation mentioned above but also bracket creep (which ended in 1985 when tax indexing took effect—a provision of the 1981 act despite Reagan’s objection), $30 billion in various tax changes, and other increases. Taxes by the end of the Reagan era will be as large a chunk of GNP as when he took office, if not larger: 19.4%, by ultra-conservative estimate of the Reagan Office of Management and Budget. The so-called historic average is 18.3%.

By now it should not be surprising that the size of the bureaucracy has also grown. Today, there are 230,000 more civilian government workers than in 1980, bringing the total to almost three million. Reagan even promoted the creation of a new federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs to join the Departments of Education and Energy, which his administration was supposed to eliminate.

The Reagan administration has been the most protectionist since Herbert Hoover’s. The portion of imports under restriction has doubled since 1980. Quotas and so-called voluntary restraints have been imposed on a host of products, from computer chips to automobiles. Ominously, Reagan has adopted the bogus fair-trade/free-trade dichotomy, and he was eager to sign the big trade bill, which tilts the trade laws even further toward protectionism.

Reagan’s fans argue that he has changed the terms of public-policy debate, that no one today dares propose big spending programs. I contend that the alleged spending-shyness of politicians is not the result of an ideological sea-change, but rather of their constituents’ fiscal fright brought about by $250 billion Reagan budget deficits. If the deficit ever shrinks, the demand for spending will resume.

This is the Reagan legacy…

In Making Economic Sense, Murray Rothbard argued the same point in his article “Keynesianism Redux.”

One of the ironic but unfortunately enduring legacies of eight years of Reaganism has been the resurrection of Keynesianism…

Amidst the intellectual confusion, however, a few dominant tendencies, legacies from their glory days, remain among Keynesians: (1) a penchant for continuing deficits, (2) a devotion to fiat paper money and at least moderate inflation, (3) adherence to increased government spending, and (4) an eternal fondness for higher taxes, to lower deficits a wee bit, but more importantly, to inflict some bracing pain on the greedy, selfish, and short-sighted American public.

The Reagan Administration managed to institutionalize these goodies, seemingly permanently on the American scene. Deficits are far greater and apparently forever; the difference now is that formerly free-market Reaganomists are out-Keynesianing their liberal forebears in coming up with ever more ingenious apologetics for huge deficits [The Bush Administration maybe?]. The only dispute now is within the Keynesian camp, with the allegedly “conservative” supply-siders enthusiastically joining Keynesians in devotion to inflation and cheap money, and differing only on their call for moderate tax cuts as against tax increases.

Perhaps “Reagonomics” really was not that great and conservatives are (intentionally or not) misreading history and the figure of Ronald Reagan. If the libertarian criticisms are legit, we quite possibly would not have “Obamanomics” if it were not his Republican forerunner of the conservative no-no’s: big government and spending deficits. Herein lies another point of GOP commitment to Orwellian vice of doublethink, principally in the form of political amnesia...once again.

16 Responses to 21st Century Conservatives, Ronald Reagan, and the Problem of Political Amnesia

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Eric, I rather suspect that conservatives have a more accurate memory of the Reagan years than the sources you cite, including the crazed late Murray Rothbard who maintained that Eisenhower was a greater threat than Krushchev, among other insanities dear to his heart.

    A good book to be read by people who know very little about the Reagan years and truly wish to understand what Reagan faced and what he accomplished is The Age of Reagan:

    http://www.amazon.com/Age-Reagan-Conservative-Counterrevolution-1980-1989/dp/1400053579/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265199035&sr=8-1

    Reagan was not perfect and here are some of the criticisms of Reagan I have listed before on this blog:

    1. Reagan simply refused to veto spending bills on a regular basis and as a result the national debt soared.

    2. Reagan committed the Marines to Lebanon with no plan and after the barracks bombing he retreated from Lebanon in disarray, a complete foreign policy debacle.

    3. Reagan’s staff was often incompetent and he refused to do anything about it.

    4. Reagan often confused giving a good speech on a problem with actually doing something about the problem.

    5. The White House rarely had an effective strategy for raising public support for judicial nominees which directly led to the “Borking” of Judge Bork in 1987.

    6. Reagan often listened to Nancy who had disastrous political instincts.

    7. Reagan was too much of a “hands off” President which led to the Iran-Contra debacle which was caused by relatively low level figures such as Colonel North running riot with almost no adult supervision.

    8. Reagan was a disaster at using his popularity to help in Congressional races which led to the losses in the House in 82 and the loss of the Senate in 86.

    9. Reagan allowed himself to be outfoxed time and again by Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neal and was unable to understand his combination of personal amiability with unrelenting partisanship.

    10. For all his talk about Federalism the size and power of the Federal government continued to grow under his tenure, although he reduced it against the size of gnp.

    My list of the top ten Reagan accomplishments:

    1. Restoring America’s economic prosperity. Reagan through his policies vanquished the inflation that had been roaring through the seventies, and lowered the astronomical interest rates. People not alive then will have a hard time comprehending the deep ditch the economy was in before Reagan took office.

    2. Reagan restored American military strength. A perfect symbol for American military impotence under Carter was the failed rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages.

    3. Reagan successfully ended the Cold War in victory by convincing the Soviet leadership that they could not keep up with America militarily.

    4. Reagan halted the expansion of Communism in Central America and oversaw the successful resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan.

    5. Reagan reduced the size of the Federal government in relationship to gnp by about 5%, almost an impossible accomplishment with the appetite of govenment for growth.

    6. Reagan was fond of saying that Communism was on its way to the ashheap of history. For that, he was often denounced by his detractors at the time as simple minded at best and a warmonger at worst. Reagan knew which way history was running and his detractors did not.

    7. Reagan gave the pro-life movement a strong bully pulpit, best typified by this essay he wrote for the Human Life Review in 1983:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/document/reagan200406101030.asp

    Reagan and his followers transformed the GOP into a party where pro-lifers predominate.

    8. Reagan restored pride in the country among many Americans. His campaign theme in the 1984 election was “It’s Morning Again in America” He won 49 states.

    9. Under Jimmy Carter it was common for people to say that the Presidency had become too big a job for one man, too complex. No one said that during the Reagan administration. From his first day to his last day in office he never had any doubt about what he wanted to accomplish and how to go about it. An uncertain rider makes a poor horseman, and an uncertain President does a poor job. Reagan was never uncertain.

    10. Reagan took a country that was manifestly in decline by most standards when he took office and left the country the sole superpower by the time he left.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    I think Eric’s main point is well taken, though. If Reagan were running for president for the first time today, with only his record in Hollywood and as California governor to go by, he would have failed several GOP “litmus tests” — including having signed Cali’s first abortion law into effect, which at the time (1967), was one of the more liberal in the nation. Yes, he did later acknowledge that was a huge mistake, but that wouldn’t stop some people from holding it against him. Plus, he did vote Democrat for many years and was president of the notoriously liberal Screen Actors Guild at one time. As such he would have been regarded as a “flip flopper” comparable to Mitt Romney, or even Kirk Dillard (Illinois gubernatorial candidate, for those of you just joining us).

  • American Knight says:

    If I am not mistaken Reagan was man who became president out of principled conviction, but I don’t think he’s a saint. So to paint him as a failure because of some failures, real or merely perceived, is not only unjust it is deceitful.

    Also, let us not confuse the office of the President of the united States of America with the office of king, dictator, fuhrer or philosopher king. The president is supposed to be the chief executor of the law, principle ambassador of the States united and Commander in Chief of our combined armed forces in time of war. He is not a god, he is not Ceasar.

    Reagan did more to stem the tide of collectivism than any other president of the 20th century. He challenged the Federal Reserve system and paid a price for it. Moreover, what about Tip O’Neil and his Democrat congress’ responsibility for the failures of the 80s? If today’s Republicans are obstructionists with no majority and until recently no super majority, how can the majority of legislators in the 80s be free from responsibility.

    History is certainly being re-written and it is a coordinated effort leading back to the Frankfurt School, Teacher’s college and the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth Progressives (aka Masons and Jacobins in disguise).

    I think Republicans can become a party that stands for American ideals, which are inherently Christian (Protest, but Christian nonetheless). Sadly, most Republicans are PPAR (Progressives posing as Republicans). That is about to change and perhaps the Democrats can be salvaged, but I doubt it – the Collectivist/Progressive/Liberal/Democrats are going to end up on the trash-heap of history and even they won’t be able to re-write that history.

    The Optimates thwarted the Populares for a few centuries before Rome fell into Empire. We have some time ahead of us, if we keep seeking truth and calling evil, evil. Reagan will be vindicated as broken sinner who did what eh thought was right and in most cases was.

    50 years from now Obama will be known as the spark that set off the American restoration and the golden age of the Republic, but now one will know of anything he said or did. He’ll be forgotten.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Completely disagree with you Elaine. Reagan ran as an uncompromising foe of abortion in 1976 and in support of a Human Life Amendment which was one of the things that attracted me to his candidacy. Reagan appealed to the same elements in the party that today love Sarah Palin, and repelled those same elements in the party who despise Palin. Reagan ran as an unapologetic populist conservative. For those who forget just how conservative Reagan was, here is a reminder from 1964:

  • c matt says:

    AK does make a good point, some of Reagan’s failures were not so much his, as it was a Democratic controlled Congress forcing its way. Spending, after all, is the job of Congress, not the Presidency.

  • Blackadder says:

    The example of Reagan points to the importance of the principle/agent problem in politics. Imagine hiring someone to negotiate a business contract for you. The terms of the contract may fall far short of what you had wished for, but you are still likely to accept it if you believe that it is the best you could have gotten, considering all the circumstances. To believe that, however, you must believe that your negotiator is looking out for your interests. Any suspicion that he is not can be deadly, and can make a person less likely to accept a deal that they would have accepted from a negotiator they trust.

    The same holds for politics. Reagan was able to raise taxes multiple times without arousing much political ill will among conservatives. Bush raised taxes once and was destroyed for it. The difference was that conservatives believed (I believe rightly) that deep down Reagan was opposed to raising taxes, and therefore wouldn’t do so unless it was really necessary. They suspected that Bush, on the other hand, really didn’t mind raising taxes.

    So if you want Republicans to be open to compromise, you’re better off electing Republicans whose conservative bonafides are unquestionable. As the saying goes, only Nixon can go to China.

  • Rick Lugari says:

    AK touched on part of what I would like to comment on. For me, the Republican party has no real intrinsic value as far as substance goes. Their real value (when applicable) is that they are not the Democratic party and often times are a brake to the Democratic party. In the above critique of Reagan pointing out all these flaws or failures (many of which Don acknowledged for many of us), the thing to remember is that those flaws were essentially a *lite* version of what the Demnocrats were fighting for. Reagan was indeed a brake to many of the Democrat designs.

    Reagan’s real merit lies in that he was far more pro-life than the opposition or even many in his party. He truly gave pro-lifers a voice. Reagan had a decency and respect for the dignity of the common man whether he was American or otherwise. That fueled his utter disdain for Communism. Reagan rejected the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction which was a centerpiece of the Cold War and believed that the only moral course of action was to actually win the Cold War rather than perpetuate it indefinitely until it finally ended with the destruction of the world.

    He gets some measure of credit for his handling of the Cold War and Communism, but IMO, he still gets nowhere the credit he deserves. Not diminishing Pope John Paul’s contribution with that above statement, but Reagan’s vision and will made the world a better place for a great many people of the day, now, and in the future.

  • Eric Brown says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Donald — I appreciate your points; though, my point wasn’t to paint Reagan as the worst president in U.S. history. I’m sure that was clear.

    Also, I don’t think those who have the best understanding or memory of Reagan are those who were his supporters and viewed his presidency in a positive light. Historical figures, even as close as two decades ago, are not always identical to their historical portraits. I still agree with much of the criticism offered in what I read (and there were things I didn’t include because I thought I had cited enough), but I can concur with some of your counter points. However, I am still not a Reagan fan. I’m afraid we’re doomed to disagreement.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    I do not expect a Democrat like you Eric to become a dues paying member of the Reagan fan club! I do care about the historical record. Lately there has been an attempt by critics of contemporary conservatives to distance Reagan from them. I think this attempt is largely wrong-headed. Reagan was a conservative down to his finger-tips and contemporary conservatives are largely following in the path that Reagan blazed. I lived through the Reagan years as a young adult and the portrait of Reagan sought to be painted in the sources you cite are at variance with the over-all record of Reagan during those years. I tend to be protective of History, and I hate seeing it misused as a bludgeon in contemporary struggles.

  • Rick Lugari says:

    FWIW, Eric, I was indeed a fan of Reagan at the time, then after my reversion to the faith had a rather critical view of him, along with most to all political figures. I still have plenty of criticism to go around, but it’s when I look back and examine things as they were and based on what we know now compared to what we knew then, that my esteem (albeit very measured) for Reagan grows. I’m of the mind that much of the contempt and admiration that is typically expressed is misguided. He wasn’t all good or all bad. At the end of the day, when I consider the good and bad and compare it to what was in the offering for the time, even the bad was better than the alternative. Much of the good (mentioned above) had great and lasting influence.

  • Rick Lugari says:

    This thread got me googling. I found this page about the US and USSR in Reagan’s words. I have only skimmed it and will have to return to it, but what I’ve seen so far confirms much of what I thought – maybe even making me more appreciative, but I’ll have to evaluate that when reading in earnest. Again, not only was Reagan insightful and resolute, we have to keep in mind that most of his critics were actually a part of the problem. Ted Kennedy, for example, not only opposed Reagan’s efforts, but basically offered to lobby on behalf of the Soviets. Even if Reagan did nothing at all, we were better off than under his opposition.

  • Art Deco says:

    Eric Brown, I think you ought to be more concise.

    Mr. Reagan made good calls and bad during his years in office, and had some serious deficiencies in his habits of mind. That having been said…

    Each of these knuckleheads seems dead to the distinction between a politician’s aspirations and the resultant of the competing forces within the political process, said politician among them. Consider the phrase ‘Reagan raised taxes’. Mr. Reagan did no such thing. He acceded to increases in payroll taxes approved by Congress.

    The main body of the Democratic Party retained control of the committee apparatus of the House of Representatives all through Reagan’s terms of office and only during 1981 and 1982 were there a sufficient number of dissident Democrats therein for Reagan’s programmes to prevail on the floor of the House. The Republican Party did have a majority in the Senate, but at the time Mr. Reagan took office, about a quarter of the Republican caucus consisted of men like Mark Hatfield who were not on board with more than incremental modifications in the country’s political economy. These characters stood down for a while, but only a while. For these reasons, and also due to the omnipresent sectoral interests which interfere with public policy, David Stockman concluded by the middle of 1982 that any opportunity to do much via legislation had passed.

    Apart from that, the exterior environment Mr. Reagan faced differed from that his immediate successors faced. They all make much of the raw number of federal employees without differentiating between civilian and military personnel. The propensity to hire men to work as soldiers declined somewhat between 1982 and 1999. Why do you imagine that was?

    The legal independence of the Federal Reserve is of little practical import with regard to the direction of policy. It is known that William McC. Martin did rebel against Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and 1966; it lasted about a year; that is about the only occasion this has happened. Paul Volcker instituted in the fall of 1979 a policy of controls on the growth of monetary aggregates. He replaced this policy in March 1980 with a set of ineffective credit controls. (The history of this is delineated in David Calleo’s The Imperious Economy). Controls on monetary aggregates were re-instituted in January of 1980 with Mr. Reagan’s blessing. Michael Kinsley knows this. If Paul Volcker wanted a third term in 1987, it certainly was not reported in The New Republic.

    Fraud aside, Michael Kinsley’s old colleague Hendrick Hertzberg was right in 1984 when he said that Ronald Reagan’s first term was mostly an exhibit of the capacity of the system to frustrate just about anyone.

    As for the remarks about Mr. Reagan’s judicial appointments, the President was compelled by circumstances to select Anthony Kennedy after a much better candidate had been rejected and Sandra Day O’Connor either changed her mind or snookered the people vetting her. It is difficult to believe any of these characters believe their own argument on this point.

  • MAT says:

    I liked Donald R. McClarey’s summary of Reagan. Reagan had a genuineness, vision and toughness about him that we could be proud of. He was a leader who believed deeply in America, in her goodness and potential. And he was a realist with a sound sense of the truth. He was persistently ridiculed by academia and the media, but his vision has proved to be the correct one. For instance, where would we be without recourse to the missile defense system today? By the way, the first time around I had voted for Carter.

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