Right Wing Nut House



Filed under: History, Politics — Rick Moran @ 11:44 am

Exactly 100 years ago in Tampico, IL - not far from where I am sitting writing this - Ronald Reagan was born. I realize that all Americans lay claim to Reagan’s legacy, but I hope you’ll forgive a little Heartland chauvinism and allow me to say that we here in the Midwest - perhaps more than others - can claim him as a favorite son.

Heartland values defined his life. The simplicity and decency of his character were forged on the prairie. His optimism and sunny disposition came to him naturally, a product of small town Americana.

I’m sure you’ve read a lot this week about Reagan. Even from the vengeful, hateful left, there has been a grudging acknowledgment of his gifts. On the right, however, there has been too much over the top Reagan worship for my tastes. Reagan was an imperfect man whose presidency had its flaws. He accomplished great things and failed greatly in others. Looking at only his warts, or his successes is superficial, however, and does not give us a complete picture of either Reagan, the person, or Reagan, the world-historical figure. That job is left to some future biographer who will be far enough removed so that the emotion people feel toward Ronald Reagan has been wrung out of the record. Right now, we are still far too close to the man and his times to make a competent judgment about his ultimate place in history.

The French academy used to have a rule that historians couldn’t write about any subject newer than 100 years old. This 19th century dictum was based on the idea that it took about 100 years for all correspondence, diaries, papers, and private recollections about a person or an event to come to light. From this distance, it seems a little silly. But the idea is not without merit. How can we judge someone without absorbing the totality of their impact on the world? This is especially true of Reagan who inspired such passion for and against him while he was on the national stage. That passion interferes with analysis and tempts the historian to ignore some facts in order to highlight others in service to ideology or bias.

It should also be noted that Reagan’s influence is still relevant today. Decisions made during his presidency are still effecting events in the Middle East, Europe, Russia and elsewhere. A final judgment of whether his impact was positive or negative in many areas, both foreign and domestic, has yet to be written.

It is in GOP politics that Reagan’s impact is still felt at the gut level. Candidates try to claim his mantle. Activists demand we follow his philosophy. Politicians invoke his name and legacy to win votes. But there is no “next Reagan” or even “Reaganesque” politicians. You don’t duplicate great men whose like is seen so rarely. By definition, the facsimile pales in comparison and ultimately disappoints. In this sense, it is better for Republicans if they were to wrap Reagan’s memory and set it in a special place where we can cherish it, admire it, but recognize the limitations that myth can have on policy choices.

It is not 1980. Our problems are different. The first decade of the 21st century demands different answers. The questions that faced Ronald Reagan when he took office were different than the ones we are asking today. It would be like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole if we attempted to force a Reagan template over our current dilemma. Surely we can demand allegiance to his principles. And copying his virtues would be a capitol idea. But his solutions, which were fine for his times, would find little success today.

Therein lies the danger of taking Reagan hagiography too far. By celebrating a mythic past, we mire ourselves in solutions that have no relevance to our present problems. The truth about Reagan is grand enough, without need to embellish it. Nor does it necessarily mean that by pointing out Reagan’s flaws that you are trying to give the statue feet of clay. Ronald Reagan - the good, the bad, the indifferent - has to be taken as he was, living in the times he did, with all his accomplishments and failures in order to glean the essence of the lessons we can draw from his time in office.

The idea that Obama wants to embrace the Reagan personae and claim it for his own says something profound about the Gipper. I don’t recall any Republicans attempting to claim such from FDR or even Kennedy. It is a mark of his originality and still momentous impact on our national life that a liberal like Obama wants to capture something of the Reagan magic to this day.

Nobody will be fooled by it, that’s for sure.

My own memories of the 1980’s is less positive than many on the right would like. There were many conservatives who worried about the structural deficits being created by the tax cuts. Failure by the administration at that time to demand spending cuts from the Democratic congress to offset the huge loss in revenue doomed us to years of big budget deficits. Placing the blame for this solely on Democrats isn’t really fair. Certainly, they bear some responsibility. But Reagan never proposed a balanced budget - or anything close - in his 8 years in office.

Let’s not forget the massive increase in the size of government during the Reagan years, either. This from the Mises Institute:

In 1980, Jimmy Carter’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.”

Reagan could talk a good conservative game, but when push came to shove, the pragmatism in his style of government emerged to offset his ideologicial inclinations.

This is especially true when it came to the evangelical right and social issues. His commitment to the GOP’s social agenda was a mile wide and an inch deep. For example, when his primal thrust for tax reform was being debated in Congress, President Reagan called or visited with more than 300 members of Congress.  But when constitutional amendments banning abortion and allowing school prayer came to a vote, he didn’t make a single call or visit with any members of Congress. He was not about to expend his personal capital to satisfy the agenda of the social cons. Of course, he was not above using them to win elections. But charges that he catered to them just doesn’t hold water.

Reagan’s commitment to conservative virtues was also selective. How anyone could call his 2,000 page tax reform proposal “prudent” is beyond me. It was sickening to watch the lobbyists gang up and make a perfectly rational piece of tax legislation light up like a Christmas tree with all those amendments, special exemptions (sometimes for one company), and other add ons that made a mockery of good government. As for probity, I give you Iran-Contra - the most unbelievably stupid government policy since World War II. Reagan lied about it, and then proclaimed it “a good idea.” No it wasn’t, and it condemned 3 more Americans to captivity by Hezballah, who simply kidnapped other Americans after the arms for hostages deal freed some of them.

Was Reagan responsible for the growing gap in income between rich and poor? This is a common assertion by the left, but it ignores the forces of history that contributed to the slow destruction of the middle class in America.

Our middle class was built as a result of our absolute economic hegemony in the industrialized world following the end of World War II. There was hardly a stick or a stone left standing in 1945 in Germany, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, and much of eastern and western Europe. The US was the only nation to escape the near total destruction of the industrial base of the leading economies in the world. Because of that, our own industrial economy supplied most of the world with steel, rubber, autos, machine tools, and a thousand other products.

But such dominance couldn’t last forever. By the mid 1960’s, Japan and Germany especially were challenging us all over the map. As the rest of the world caught up, our shortsighted industries failed to invest in new plant, new equipment, and new techniques that would have allowed us to be more competitive in a changing world. Such was not to be, and the plants that employed our workers began their long slide into oblivion.

When the 1980’s arrived, wages for factory workers were already declining precipitously. Our economy had begun the long, slow, painful transition from being industrial based to service based. Jobs were disappearing at an astonishing rate in the old labor intensive industries of the midwest. The jobs that these workers eventually succeeded in getting paid far less than their old factory jobs, thus skewing the income gap toward the rich.

All of this occurred before Ronald Reagan even took the oath of office. Did the tax cuts accelerate the gap in incomes? That might be a fair criticism, although the question that is better asked is why not more targeted tax breaks for industry so that modernization might have saved a few jobs. Reagan and conservatives eschewed an “industrial policy” which might have been ideologically satisfying but the result was anything but sublime. The income gap and resulting destruction of the American middle class may have been mostly the result of long term trends, but no president, party, or administration ever addressed the problem of our shrinking manufacturing base that might have made the situation better.

If one were to subscribe to the “Great Man” theory of history that points to the intervention of a Lincoln, a Washington, or a Napoleon for that matter, as an essential component of historical change, Reagan certainly belongs in any top tier list of best American presidents.

But Reagan benefited hugely by the lucky accident of a rare convergence of historical forces that saw the earth shattering conclusion to the Soviet Union’s hegemony of eastern Europe, as well as the final, inevitable collapse of the unsustainable Soviet system. In this respect, Reagan can be credited with riding the whirlwind successfully and initiating challenges that led directly to the fall of the Soviet empire. What might have been a period of extreme hazard for the world, ended with the successful, largely peaceful transition out of the Soviet model and into a still uncertain future for Russia.

The mixed success of Reagan’s economic policies and uneven results in his foreign policy will probably drop Reagan out of the top 10 list of best US presidents. If it is results that ranks presidents, that will be true even after all that were alive during his presidency pass on and the strong emotions associated with his time on the national stage is replaced by the cold, black and white facts and figures that historians will mull over to glean Reagan’s impact on history.

But will these investigations capture Reagan’s innate optimism? His dominant personality? The ease with which power sat on his shoulders? His undeniable connection to the overwhelming majority of Americans? His ability to speak a language that touched something deep within the American psyche? Or the iconic status in which he will be held by conservatives?

I hope so. No understanding of the Reagan presidency, or Reagan the man, will be complete without acknowledging the fact that that his greatest gifts and most telling legacy will be in the way he saw America and the way Americans saw him.

Part of this blog post was first published at The American Thinker

1 Comment

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Dunetz and mark safranski, Rick Moran. Rick Moran said: HAPPY 100TH, RONALD REAGAN: http://bit.ly/dOUYhC via @addthis The good, the bad, the very bad, and the sublime [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Right Wing Nut House » HAPPY 100TH, RONALD REAGAN -- Topsy.com — 2/6/2011 @ 12:54 pm

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