The Liberal Misappropriation of a Conservative President
Of all the unlikely developments in American politics over the last two decades, the most astonishing is this: liberals suddenly love Ronald Reagan. They have taken to celebrating certain virtues they claim Reagan possessed—virtues they believe are absent from the conservative body politic today—while looking back with nostalgia at the supposed civility of the political struggles of the 1980s.
“There’s something there I miss today,” mused the former Democratic staffer and longtime talk-show host Chris Matthews in January about the relationship between Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the most powerful Democrat in Washington during Reagan’s first term. Matthews dreamily evoked a time when Reagan and O’Neill had drinks together, swapped Irish stories, slapped backs, and, they say, cut deals with a minimum of personal rancor—as opposed to the ugly relations between the two parties today.
Even more notable is the fact that Reagan has become a model for presidential governance for . . . Barack Obama. Time, having proclaimed Obama to be the second coming of FDR in January 2009, abandoned that image in favor of declaring an Obama “bromance” with Reagan in January 2011. The White House’s press office revealed that Obama had read Lou Cannon’s biography of Reagan over the 2010 Christmas holidays, a choice that might once have seemed as incongruous as John F. Kennedy reading up on Calvin Coolidge. Obama even wrote an homage to Reagan for USA Today in February at the time of Reagan’s centennial birthday. “Reagan recognized the American people’s hunger for accountability and change,” the president said, thereby conferring on Reagan two of his most cherished political slogans.
All in all, say Time’s Michael Duffy and Michael Scherer, “there is no mistaking Obama’s increasing reliance on his predecessor’s career as a helpful template for his own.” After all, Reagan governed during a punishing recession with horrific unemployment, both of which led to a bad midterm election for his party and approval ratings in the 30s—only to win a 49-state landslide reelection. It is only natural for Obama and his political team to look at Reagan’s example to glean lessons about how they might achieve a similar result in 2012.
They appear to believe that the recent cliffhanger over the debt ceiling, in which Republicans refused to agree to tax increases, has provided them with surprising ammunition to make the case that, as the liberal writer Joan Walsh recently observed, “President Obama is actually the Reagan figure here.” Walsh had in mind a speech Obama delivered at the height of the debt-ceiling battle. “One of my predecessors,” Obama said, talked about the need for a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction—just as Obama, too, was doing. Then he read this quotation:
Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment? And I think I know your answer.
“Those words,” Obama said, as though he were delivering a coup de grâce, “were spoken by Ronald Reagan.” The president continued: “But today, many Republicans in the House refuse to consider this kind of balanced approach—an approach that was pursued not only by President Reagan, but by the first President Bush, President Clinton, myself, and many Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate.”
Meet Ronald Reagan—not only a president whose Washington was far friendlier than today’s, but a supporter of tax increases as a means of bringing the budget into balance. Obama’s Reagan is a compromiser, a pragmatist, a man who did not allow his ideology to blind him to the need to get things done.
In truth, this depiction of Reagan is entirely false, as is the contention that Reagan-era Washington was a kinder and gentler place than it is today. The hostilities between parties and ideologies in Washington during Reagan’s presidency make the present day look tame by comparison. No president in modern times has ever been as reviled. And the hatred of Reagan was justified, to some degree, because his presidency, in the rueful words of the journalist Richard Reeves a decade ago, “damned near destroyed American liberalism.”
So what accounts for the patent distortion of Reagan’s record—and for the blatant rewriting of history so recent that even the revisionists must be baffled at their own strange new respect for someone most of them (like Barack Obama) surely grew up reviling?
We can start with Obama’s use of Reagan’s words about “raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share,” which the current president deployed to place Reagan’s imprimatur on his own support for tax increases to reduce the deficit. Reagan spoke those words about a budget deal struck with Congress before the 1982 elections. That deal, which came to be known as TEFRA (the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act), featured what was then, to date, the largest tax hike in American history. TEFRA came a little more than a year after the enactment of the Kemp-Roth bill, which slashed marginal tax rates at every level by 23 percent over three years and was the heart of what came to be known as “Reaganomics.”
Obama’s appropriation was and is disingenuous on every level. When Obama says, “fair share,” he means something very specific: higher marginal income tax rates on the group he calls the rich. This is the polar opposite of Reagan’s policy approach in 1982. All the “tax increases” to which Reagan agreed as part of TEFRA were temporary excise hikes on cigarettes and telephone calls. The bill also featured technical changes in the tax code (such as the elimination of depreciation schedules and the reduction of tax credits and deductions).
Reagan understood that not all taxes are created equal, nor do they have the same effect on economic performance. He believed that his tax cuts needed to be permanent if they were to have a positive effect on the economy (in line with Milton Friedman’s permanent-income hypothesis). Thus, he adamantly refused to consider any changes to the 1981 marginal income tax cuts, even as the revocation of those changes became the chief liberal domestic-policy objective from 1981 onward. Indeed, when the economy tipped into recession in the fall of 1981, leading to the ballooning of the budget deficit, the first and leading demand of Democrats was to cancel the third year of the income tax cut and roll back the elimination of “bracket creep.” 1
Reagan never budged an inch, then or in the rest of his presidency. And his stubbornness was the cause of outrage so universal among liberals that they deafened themselves to the populist appeal of Reagan’s supply-side policies—so much so that Walter Mondale came to believe it was a sensible strategy to tell the American people in his 1984 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that he was going to raise their taxes.
Reagan’s adamancy extended into his second term, when even Republicans like Sen. Robert Dole said publicly that Mondale had been correct and that Reagan would be forced to agree to higher tax rates. Instead, early in 1985, Reagan invoked Clint Eastwood’s brand-new sound bite when he declared that members of Congress “seem to be in full-scale retreat from spending cuts and are talking about raising people’s taxes again. Well, let them be forewarned: 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.’”
His determination was surely strengthened by the fact that the “balanced approach” he had advocated in the 1982 budget deal had never come to pass. TEFRA was designed to bring about $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue, which meant that, on paper, it advanced Reagan’s goal of shrinking the federal government. In practice, the results of TEFRA were almost exactly the opposite. While the tax increases were real, Congress never delivered on the spending cuts. By one calculation, the 1982 budget deal actually resulted in $1.14 of new spending for each extra tax dollar. Obama and today’s liberals have responded with incredulity to the Republicans’ refusal to take a 3-for-1 cuts-to-taxes deal (or a 10-to-1 deal, as was posed hypothetically to the GOP presidential field in an Iowa debate). Some of us have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends.
Reagan struck a sorrowful note about the TEFRA deal in his memoirs, writing that “later the Democrats reneged on their pledge and we never got those cuts.” Many of his closest aides agree with the judgment of Reagan’s longtime intimate, Edwin Meese, that “the TEFRA compromise—the ‘Debacle of 1982’—was the greatest domestic error of the Reagan administration. . . . Judged by the results, TEFRA was not only a mistake, it was an object lesson in how not to reduce the deficit.”
Obama is interested in the example of TEFRA for another reason: he wants his political story to mirror Reagan’s, and if it does, he can view Reagan’s midterm 1982 defeat as a precursor to his own “shellacking” in 2010. In November 1982, two months after the passage of TEFRA, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House. O’Neill (and a compliant media) jubilantly pronounced the result “a disaster for the Republicans” and more reason for Reagan to abandon his economic policy and capitulate to Democratic demands. Reagan didn’t capitulate, as we have seen, and still triumphed in 1984.
This model might seem to argue for Obama to hold the line against Republican demands in 2011 and 2012. Except it doesn’t. In fact, Republican losses in 1982 were surprisingly small given the depth of the economic woes and public unhappiness at the time. The historical precedents and the leading political science models all agree that the GOP losses should have been much greater. One 1984 study in Presidential Studies Quarterly concluded: “When the historical trend is considered, the Republican loss of 26 seats not only seems relatively small, but might be interpreted as a kind of political victory.” Indeed, we’ve seen three midterm wave elections since—1994, 2006, and 2010—and they were all vastly more significant. The Democratic losses in November 2010 were the most devastating for either party in more than 70 years.
Republican losses in 1982 were comparatively small because, polls showed, enough of the voting public retained a residue of confidence that Reagan’s economic policy would yet work. Voters in 1982 simply were not furious about Reaganomics the way they were furious about Obamacare and the stimulus in 2010. As proof of that fact, consider this: there was no equivalent of the Tea Party movement on the left in the early 1980s. And when the subsequent economic boom took hold in 1983, it was off to the races for Reagan, setting the stage for the “morning in America” reelection theme. A similar economic boom before the 2012 election seems unlikely at this point, to put it mildly. Indeed, Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt’s dismissal of Reagan’s 1984 theme seems more apt now than it did then: “It’s getting closer and closer to midnight.”
Obama and his team miss the contrast between then and now in another important way. Back in the 1980s and right up to the present, Keynesians such as Paul Krugman argued that the Reagan boom that began in 1983 was simply a normal cyclical recovery from the sharp 1982 recession. They say, moreover, it was abetted by Reagan’s unintentional budget deficits, which supplied the country with a government-funded stimulus. The tax cuts and related policies such as deregulation Reagan advocated had nothing to do with it.
If this account were a guide map to the present, we should be seeing a sharp snapback right now—what with Obama’s huge stimulus package, the severity of the downturn that began at the end of 2007, and the staggering size of the present deficit, due to hit $1.4 trillion this year alone. (Just for historical reference, Obama’s budget deficits have been nearly twice as large as Reagan’s worst deficits as a percentage of GDP.) And if the Reagan-Obama parallel carried through, Obama should be cruising toward an easy reelection next year. He isn’t, because the neo-Keynesian model is wrong, as demonstrated by the prolonged doldrums making the current “recovery” the weakest in the postwar era.
When the economy turned around in 1983, Reagan quipped that “pretty soon, they won’t be calling it ‘Reaganomics’ any more.” This has never been truer than now. The new liberal embrace of Reagan requires separating Reagan’s political success from the substance of his political and economic views, and requires its adherents to ignore the kinds of fights in which Reagan and his people were forced to engage in order to get their policies through and make them stick.
This is the same mistake liberals made in the 1980s, when they attributed Reagan’s popularity almost solely to his personality, as epitomized in the famous dismissal of Reagan as the “Teflon president.” Today they are raging against the same aspect of Reagan’s legacy that so infuriated them three decades ago—marginal income tax levels. The drive for higher rates, which is nearly an article of faith by now, has compelled liberals to concoct an artificial Reagan who confounds the true Reagan’s principles with his compromises, and in doing so doesn’t even get the nature of the compromises right.
Beyond the historical revisionism on taxes and spending is the equally ahistorical argument that the Reagan years were a model of civility compared with the tone of the criticism leveled at President Obama. The evocation of the supposedly reasonable Reagan who governed in relative harmony with liberals requires the opening of a memory hole the size of the Grand Canyon.
Liberals hated Reagan in the 1980s. Pure and simple. They used language that would make the most fervid anti-Obama rhetoric of the Tea Party seem like, well, a tea party. Democratic Rep. William Clay of Missouri charged that Reagan was “trying to replace the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” The Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Harry Stein (later a conservative convert) wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.”
There was ample academic support for this theme. John Roth, a Holocaust scholar at Claremont College, wrote:
I could not help remembering how 40 years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism—all intensified by Germany’s defeat in World War I—to send the world reeling into catastrophe. . . . It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our postelection state with fear and trembling.
Eddie Williams, head of what the Washington Post described as “the respected black think tank, the Joint Center for Political Studies,” reacted to Reagan’s election thus: “When you consider that in the climate we’re in—rising violence, the Ku Klux Klan—it is exceedingly frightening.” (This was not far removed from Fidel Castro’s opinion about Reagan, offered right before the election: “We sometimes have the feeling that we are living in the time preceding the election of Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany.”) In the Nation, Alan Wolfe wrote that “the United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era.”
As for the supposed sweetness and light between Reagan and Tip O’Neill, it was mostly blarney. The two had numerous tense phone calls and meetings. In private they called each other’s views “crap” on more than one occasion; as the budget talks in 1982 headed to a climax, Reagan told O’Neill, “you can get me to crap a pineapple, but you can’t get me to crap a cactus.” O’Neill publicly called Reagan “callous . . . a real Ebenezer Scrooge,” whose program was “for the selfish, the greedy, and the affluent.” In his diary, Reagan wrote: “Tip O’Neil [sic] is getting rough; saw him on TV telling the United Steelworkers U. that I am going to destroy the nation.” He also told his diary that “Tip is a true pol. He can really like you personally & be a friend while politically trying to beat your head in.” That was Reagan at his most charitable. He noted once that in a White House meeting where O’Neill “sounded off in a very partisan manner,” “I almost let go the controls but I didn’t,” and on another occasion he described one of O’Neill’s public claims as “the most vicious pack of lies I’ve ever seen.”
Reagan had in mind such O’Neill gems as his remarks in 1981 on ABC that Reagan “has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man in America. And I understand that. Because of his lifestyle, he never meets those people.” This was a mere warm-up for O’Neill’s blast at Reagan during the 1984 campaign:
The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.
Geraldine Ferraro, Mondale’s running mate, felt free to challenge Reagan’s religious bona fides: “The President walks around calling himself a good Christian, but I don’t for one minute believe it because the policies are so terribly unfair.” Jesse Jackson, who routinely referred to Reagan’s administration as a “repressive regime,” said, “Reagan is closer to Herod than he would be to the family of Jesus.”
Nor should we forget the Reagan-the-warmonger theme. Senator Alan Cranston said, “Reagan is a trigger-happy president [with a] simplistic and paranoid worldview leading us toward a nuclear collision that could end us all.” And Texas Democrat Henry Gonzalez said in 1986: “Nothing is going to change President Reagan. He wants war, he is getting war . . . and he is not going to leave office without having war against Nicaragua and a direct invasion.”
When NATO deployed medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, millions of demonstrators not only filled the streets of Western capitals, but hundreds of thousands of Americans became passionate advocates of a so-called nuclear freeze, with nationwide campus teach-ins in 1982 and 1983. One of them was a Columbia undergraduate named Barack Obama, who wrote in 1983:
By organizing and educating the Columbia community, such activities lay the foundation for future mobilization against the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country. . . . The Reagan administration’s stalling at the Geneva talks on nuclear weapons has thus already caused severe tension and could ultimately bring about a dangerous rift between the United States and Western Europe.
Reagan was not the only target of liberal ire; the people who worked for him were as well. Throughout the 1980s, liberals were so enraged by the Reagan administration’s behavior that they relentlessly sought to turn policy differences into acts of criminality. Six special prosecutors, granted almost unlimited power by the Independent Counsel Act of 1978, were deployed by Democrats in Congress to go after Reagan administration officials. (When the same power was invoked against the Clinton administration, the Independent Counsel Act suddenly became unpopular and was allowed to expire). The ugliness of the battles on judicial confirmations, support for Nicaraguan rebels, and other controversial policies reached levels of vituperation and contumely so intense that it is almost unimaginable to consider what they would have been like had cable-news networks and the Internet been in place.
That was Reagan’s Washington. Obama’s is tame by comparison.
The newfound liberal respect for Reagan didn’t begin this spring. It has been building for more than a decade. What accounts for it? I think liberals are making a virtue out of necessity. Having failed to “Coolidgize” Reagan by turning him into a figure of ridicule, as mid-20th century historians such as Arthur Schlesinger did to Calvin Coolidge, the media-academic complex has set out to appropriate Reagan—just as an earlier generation of liberals such as Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt did with Abraham Lincoln.
There are a few liberal diehards, mostly younger writers who came of age after Reagan, who are keeping the old Reagan hatred alive, such as William Bunch, author of the book, Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, or William Kleinknecht, who wrote The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America. But more common are the older liberal bulls who have come to terms with Reagan. The most eye-opening example may be Robert Dallek, the fawning biographer of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Dallek’s 1984 biography of Reagan, Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, was thoroughly harsh. In addition to embracing the usual clichés that Reagan was ignorant and lazy, Dallek portrayed Reagan as a reactionary throwback: “Reaganism is a return to old-fashioned Republicanism—large tax cuts for the rich, less government help for the poor, weaker enforcement of civil rights, fewer controls on industry, less protection for the environment, and emotional rhetoric on the virtues of hard work, family, religion, individualism, and patriotism.” In two words, Reagan stood for “old shibboleths,” and his popularity
was partly attributable to “nonrational” forces in American society.
But when Dallek issued a new edition of his book in 1999, the tone of the new preface was so different from the original that it hardly seemed to fit with the old (and unchanged) text: “The stumbling performances of George Bush and Bill Clinton, Reagan’s two successors, now persuade me that Reagan was a more skilled and effective political leader than I believed in 1984. I also failed to give sufficient credit to Reagan’s talent for mass communications, which did more to restore a measure of confidence in the institution of the presidency than anything since the Kennedy administration.” About the prosperity of the 1980s (the “decade of greed,” remember) and the 1990s (the even more ostentatious decade of not-greed, apparently), Dallek concedes: “Some of the credit will surely go to Reagan’s affinity for lower taxes and less federal regulation.”
Dallek’s revised account is a perfect example of how the liberal body-snatching operation requires separating Reagan from his principles and obscuring his record. For a while in the early 1990s, the liberal line was that Mikhail Gorbachev deserved the full credit for the benign end of the Cold War. When Time proclaimed Gorbachev “Person of the Decade” in 1990, Strobe Talbot’s 5,000-word valentine mentioned Reagan only once in passing, and then only to dismiss Reagan’s foreign policy as “smug.” This theme is still hanging on; Michael Kazin wrote recently in the New Republic that “Reagan could thank Mikhail Gorbachev for taking the initiative to wind down” the Cold War. But with the revelation of more documentary evidence, and even Gorbachev himself recognizing Reagan’s leading role, the liberal line of crediting Gorbachev seems little more than churlish. Hence, more typical today are the positions of liberal foreign policy grandees such as James Mann. His book, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, gets all the facts right but mangles the interpretation, suggesting there were two Reagans: the first-term hardliner and the second-term born-again convert to détente.
This line of liberal revisionism is the source of another of Obama’s misappropriations of Reagan’s legacy. Obama cited Reagan’s willingness to talk to our enemies, the Soviets, as justification for his willingness to talk with Iran, somehow forgetting that Reagan did try to talk with the Iranians and that it didn’t end well. Liberals are often heard these days speaking ruefully about the simple, straightforward, or binary world of the Cold War, as opposed to the “complex” world we face today. In doing so, they wipe away the signal accomplishment of the second half of the 20th century—the destruction of the Evil Empire—while simultaneously erasing from the historical record their chief complaint about Reagan’s anti-Communism, which is that it was too “simplistic” and moralistic. As is the case with Reagan’s economic policy, today’s liberals remember nothing and have learned nothing.
The ultimate revisionist distortion of Reagan is that he was a “pragmatist.” If meant in the most literal sense—that he behaved as a practical politician who struck compromises out of political necessity—calling Reagan a pragmatist is reasonable, although Tip O’Neill is reported to have said that he hated negotiating with Reagan because Reagan always got 80 percent of what he wanted.
But why “pragmatist” instead of “practical compromiser”?
When a liberal today calls Reagan a “pragmatist,” he typically means something other than the word’s proper usage, even if he doesn’t fully know it. He means that, in the model of the great Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century, Reagan should be celebrated for using conservative means to implement liberal change. Following the “pragmatic” course, in liberal-speak, means conservatives should give in to the larger size of government that Obama is attempting to cement into place. They believe this is the calling of history. Labeling Reagan a “pragmatist” is therefore more than a mere obfuscation of his ideology. It is an attempt to delegitimize Reagan’s own conservatism without actually having to argue the matter out.
But just as liberals weren’t able to defeat Reagan while he was president, they aren’t having much luck vanquishing his ideological heirs today. This explains the liberal rage against the Republican and Tea Party refusal to compromise over the tax increases necessary to support the step-by-step increase in the size of government they believe history mandates.
In the end, liberals from Obama on down haven’t actually discovered hidden virtues in Reagan. They are deploying Reagan as a weapon against the possibility that his conservative governing philosophy is going to be revived—and next time, perhaps, will make more progress in rolling back the welfare state.
Then they’ll remember why they hated him all along.
1 All but forgotten now, bracket creep was one of the disastrous consequences of the inflationary spiral of the 1970s. Owing to the existence of 16 tax brackets, a person who received a relatively small raise might find himself pushed into a higher tax bracket and find himself paying more in taxes than the entirety of the raise. The 1981 tax cuts indexed the brackets for inflation, thus eliminating bracket creep, but at a cost to the Treasury.