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The Curse of Reagan

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the...

Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

Since he began his tramp to the White House, W. has touted himself, and been touted by his loyalists, as the true heir of Ronald Reagan. Although only too happy to use his daddy’s name, political and corporate connections, and big money pool, George the Lesser otherwise distanced himself from George the Elder, whom the Right holds responsible for bungling the Reagan Revolution and yielding the White House to a Democratic successor. The son was the Real Thing — Classic Coke for Republican activists who called themselves “conservative.” By his own words, Bush’s only true father is God. Begotten in Immaculate Misconception, born again at the end of the 80s, he sprung sinless from the head of Reagan, taking the remainder of Der Gipper’s addled wits with him.

Like Reagan, Georgie spieled a good line on cutting taxes and government and promoting conservative Christian values; like Reagan he thus had both Wall Street and Pat Robertson on his side. He even dressed like a Hollywood cowboy and cleared brush on his dude ranch. Although he had to seize the White House with 49% of the vote, instead of winning it like Reagan with a 51% landslide, Bush the Second would get to perpetuate the Revolution.

Today, of course, with the White House Occupant dogpaddling to keep his approval above 30%, conservatives are jumping ship and sputtering to explain what happened. The favored mantra is that Bush has not been Reaganesque enough, a nostrum expanded to book length in Bruce Bartlett’s recent Impostor. This former Reagan apparatchik summarizes his case on his first page, where he complains that Bush is really just a “pretend conservative,” without the deep commitment to the principles embodied in the revered Ronald, who now sitteth to the Right of God. As Bartlett laments, “cutting taxes without cutting spending doesn’t do the conservative cause any good,” leaving the nation as it does with record deficits that will eventually have to be paid for.

This is precisely the point also made by hidebound conservative Charles Krauthammer when he writes that the president “has elevated a refusal to raise taxes to high principle, indeed to as high a principle in the conservative pantheon as a balanced budget used to be. The resulting deficits, so huge and so casually ignored by him, have destroyed any notion of limits. Conservatives, who used to be the nation’s last line of defense against ruinous spending, now believe — worse, they preach — the supply-side gospel that deficits don’t count. With their conversion, there is no line of defense left.” Krauthammer concludes, “Reagan defined liberalism as tax and spend. He has redefined conservatism as borrow and party.”

But wait — which president does that last “He” refer to?

Gotcha! Krauthammer published these words in the 27 July 1987 issue of the New Republic under the title “Is Reagan Conservative?

In fact, not only did Krauthammer fault supply-side Reaganomics for being “unconservative,” he said the same about that administration’s entire approach to government. For the Krauthammer of 1987, conservativism demands continuity and the balance of constitutional powers, whereas Reagan, along with his attorney general Edwin Meese, were seeking to end same with a radical attack on the courts and the protection of citizens’ rights. The Supreme Court in particular is “the one piece of glue that holds together the organized anarchy that is the government of the United States,” and attempting to pack the Court with so-called “strict constructionists” like Robert Bork was radical, not conservative. What would be conservative, he asks, “about a Court that would overturn the precedents of, say, Miranda and Roe”?

Ultimately, Bork went down to defeat not only for his radical views, as even pundits on the Right noted, but because of the administration’s distraction with the continuing Iran-Contra scandal. Conservative Fred Barnes argued at the end of 1986, the fifth year of Reagan’s presidency, that Iran-Contra had marked the beginning of the end of the Reagan era by suggesting that the White House really did not know what it was doing (New Republic, Dec. 22, 16-17); it was either (1) dishonest or (2) clueless, if not both. Worse, for Barnes, it showed that the administration could not admit to making mistakes. In this he agreed with liberal commentator Garry Wills, who in his Newsweek article on the Iran-Contra scandal chides Reagan’s sense of mythic mission, and his much-vaunted “optimism, which is impervious to evidences of disaster. . . . Bad news either does not get to him or is rejected if it does” (“A Fantasy Breeds a Scandal,” 29 Dec 1986, 22-23).

Again in 1986, Reagan’s former budget advisor David A. Stockman also loudly doubted Der Gipper’s conservative credentials. In his much-hyped book The Triumph of Politics, he flatly asserted, “The true Reagan Revolution never had a chance. It defied all of the overwhelming forces, interests and impulses of American democracy.” The checks and balances of our government are designed to prevent revolutions of any kind, he observed; furthermore, he could not slash the federal budget in tandem with slashing taxes without ending welfare not only for the non-voting poor — a no-brainer for Republicans — but also for corporations and farmers: a no-no for Republicans. In addition, the military-industrial complex had been promised its tons of flesh, which it got, while after floating some test balloons about dismantling Social Security, the favorite government program of the middle class, Reagan’s White House decided to let it be. In short, según Stockman, Reagan “grasped just half of this revolutionary equation” — the tax cuts; ultimately, politics didn’t allow him to carry out the rest of his threat to take government out of the lives of Americans (qtd. in Newsweek, “Why the Reagan Revolution Failed,” 21 Apr 1986, 40-41). Americans — the Reaganoids learned, just as the Bush League has — love their entitlements and their pork; they just don’t want to pay for them.

At the end of 1987, when the Republicans lost the Senate, thus putting both houses of Congress back in Democratic hands, Fred Barnes wrote, “Lame duck is too kind a term for the Reagan White House. True, Reagan’s second term is winding down and his political clout has dwindled. This is normal lame-duckery. . . . But the troubles of Reagan and his team are far worse than is normal and are mostly self-inflicted. Reagan and his aides are out of touch. They are constantly surprised by events.” (New Republic, 9 Nov 1987). Addendum: This cannot be the same Fred Barnes who recently published the brown-nosing Bush encomium Rebel-in-Chief, in which the eponymous is regarded as a paragon of courage and insight.

To summarize: despite the claims from today’s Right that Bush is failing because he was not the successor to St. Ronald that they originally thought he was, Bush is in fact failing in much the same terms. Like Reagan, he slashed revenues without actually shrinking government; like Reagan, he has vigorouly endorsed imperialism overseas and increased government control over citizens, but not corporations, in the name of security. Unfortunately, you cannot maintain either a military empire or a police state on a starvation diet; you end up with Brazil, not 1984. Moreover, when you conduct foreign policy in the dark, you end up shooting yourself in both feet. When your entire ideology rests on a web of fantasies, lies, and delusions, you should not be surprised that the real world rips through it like wet Charmin.

Bush cannot complete the Reagan agenda for the same reason Reagan couldn’t: except around the edges, it is internally contradictory and inherently unworkable. As Kevin Drum notes in his review of Bartlett’s Impostor in The Washington Monthly “the problem on the right is that conservatives have failed miserably whenever they’ve tried to take a serious chainsaw to modern liberalism. Cutting taxes is just about all they have left, and as Bartlett concedes, taxes can’t be cut forever” (“George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan,” March 2006, 27). A bankrupt ideology breeds a bankrupt nation.

Being liberal in spirit, we give the last word to the wingnuts of that earlier era. William S. Lind, associate of New Right guru Paul Weyrich, complained in 1986 that like most “New Right conservatives” he was “deeply disappointed by the Reagan Administration, not because it has been too moderate, but because it has been both trivial and inept.” Conservative academic M. E. Bradford, founder of the Philadelphia Society, grumbled that after “five years under Ronald Reagan, what we have learned is how little is accomplished by winning elections” (both qtd. by John B. Jadis in “The Right: Is There Life After Reagan?” The Progressive, Oct 1986, 23).

Yet today’s Right still clings to the hope for a Messiah-like Fitzgerald’s American dreamers “beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Unfortunately, their perpetual failure does not mean triumph for the rest of us. As long as they continue to batter our body politic, their retardation impedes us all.


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