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Reagan’s Centrist Legacy

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On June 11, 2004 @ 7:01 am In Politics | Comments Disabled

This week has been an overwhelming, non-stop, televised funeral for President Ronald Reagan. He was a genuinely liked personality, larger than life, whose wit and charm made up for other, more human failings. I do not think you could easily watch the massive outpouring of human affection and not marvel at what made the man so loved by so many people.

Of course, there has also been plenty of partisan politicking; Fox had a Reagan orgy (“Reagan Porn,” someone else called it), Karl Rove was driven into an apoplectic frenzy, desperately trying to capitalize on RR’s death to right a listing campaign. Indeed, he turned the entire Bush-Cheney 2004 web site [1] into a Reagan memorial shrine.

Much of the Political Left went the other way, remembering a more divisive time [2], focusing on the negative: AIDS, Iran Contra, Arms for Hostages, 241 Marines in Beirut, S&L Crisis, Ketchup as a vegetable, Reaganomics [3], trees causing pollution, etc.

But that’s not where I want to focus today. I want to give the man his due, and observe something notably missing from the present political discourse: Where Reagan “crossed over,” reaching out to the Center as well as the Left to enact policies in the National Interest.

I was a teenager during the ’70s. I missed the War and college protests by a few years — but not the bellbottoms, disco, or gas lines. I recall the 1970s as a depressing period: The clothes were ugly, music got worse, and automobile design went to hell (my own priorities are now outed). The country was in a nasty funk: Inflation was high, as was unemployment. Japan was kicking our collective asses. The stock market had done jack for 16 years. BusinessWeek had proclaimed “the Death of Equities [4]” on their cover.

America no longer seemed like the Land of Opportunity.

What I give Ronald Reagan credit for most was pulling the country out of its post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate malaise. Nixon ruined an entire generation of citizens, who learned to expect the absolute worst from their leaders; Ford made it worse, as the country quickly figured out “the fix” was in; Carter demonstrated the risk of forgoing strong decisive leadership.

When RR came into office, he set a positive, optimistic, decisive tone. He was what the country needed. “Swing” voters? Hell, there were none — instead, there were Reagan Democrats. (Talk about a “uniter, not a divider.”) Is there such a thing as a Bush Democrats? Never. Where there ever Clinton Republicans? Hardly.

One can argue the most significant difference between RR and W is that Reagan campaigned to the Right, but governed pragmatically from the center. Contending with a Democratic Congress forced that, to some degree. Bush, on the other hand, ran on a Centrist platform — but governed from the hard right [5]. With a Republican Congress, he should be able to enact his own agenda — yet seems to be having more trouble with Congress than Reagan did. (That has more to do with the differences between Tom Delay and Tip O’Neill rather than those between Bush and Reagan.

Ultimately, the net impact was that Reagan won re-election in a landslide. Meanwhile, Rove & Co. are digging through the playbook, hunting for an “October Suprise” (Get Giuliani on the phone! Promise him ANYTHING if he’ll be Veep!)

Maybe I’m “talking my book” — meaning my own libertarianism — but I see evidence of these differences in stark relief: Both the Left and the Right are trumpeting the Gipper’s pragmatic centrism. In fact, I came across two articles — one from the Conservative Tech Central Station [6], the other from the Progressive Washington Monthly [7] — which each make a case for Reagan’s cross party appeal:

Joshua Green, circa January 2003: “What the new literature on the Gipper won’t tell you,” correctly anticipated the frenzy, the spin, as well as the outpouring of affection since Reagan’s passing.

Washington Monthly [7]: “Reagan is, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history and will certainly be remembered as such. His record on the environment, defense, and economic policy is very much in line with its portrayal. But he entered office as an ideologue who promised a conservative revolution, vowing to slash the size of government, radically scale back entitlements, and deploy the powers of the presidency in pursuit of socially and culturally conservative goals. That he essentially failed in this mission hasn’t stopped partisan biographers from pretending otherwise. (Noonan writes of his 1980 campaign pledges: “Done, done, done, done, done, done, and done. Every bit of it.”)

A sober review of Reagan’s presidency doesn’t yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.

All of this has been airbrushed from the new literature of Reagan. But as any balanced account must make clear, Reagan acceded to political compromises as all presidents do once in office–and on many occasions did so willingly. In fact, however often unintentionally, many of his actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives. What this clamor of adulation is seeking to deny is that beyond his conservative legacy, Ronald Reagan has bequeathed a liberal one.

Yet the view from some of the Right makes observations not all that different:

Tech Central Station [6]: “When Ronald Reagan defeated Carter’s re election bid, “incomes policies” were a proven failure. Notwithstanding Milton Friedman’s comments quoted above, by 1980 it took a lot less courage to stand by a monetary approach to disinflation than it did a decade earlier. I believe that Carter would also have stuck with Volcker through the recession, and if that is the case, then the behavior of the economy in the 1980s would have been about the same regardless of who had been President. Of course, I generally believe that the business cycle follows its own course, and that giving credit or blame to a President is an attribution error. Thus, Presidents who enjoy strong economic performance, like Clinton , are over-rated in my opinion, while Carter, who suffered from the policy errors of previous Administrations and had began to undo those errors, is under-rated on economics.”

Kling raises the interesting point (not seen before, at least by me) that Reagan’s anti-inflation policies were an extension of Carter’s, not a repudiation. (Apparently, Kling is also a uniter, not a divider).

But there’s more:

“I believe that President Reagan made a positive difference for the economy. However, unlike most analysts, I do not focus on his tax cuts. Instead, I think that Reagan’s main contributions were on energy policy, tax reform, and resisting government expansion.

President Reagan’s energy policy was to lift price controls and trust the market to take care of OPEC. In doing so, he ignored conventional wisdom at the time. I believe this took even more courage than standing by Paul Volcker, and even today it is difficult to find a politician who appreciates Oil Econ 101 .

President Reagan’s other big achievement was tax reform — not the tax cuts of 1981 but the reform of 1986 which flattened the tax structure, eliminated loopholes, and removed some of the disincentive toward saving that plagues our tax system…”

These are all Centrist economic issues. At least, they are now.

There are important lessons here to be learned by political science students. Too many politicos only recognize the Reagan virtue of optimism; They fail to see the importance of reaching across the aisle, governing from the center, being the President of All the People.

Whoever learns that lesson the fastest will likely be the next President of the United States.

Ronald Reagan, 1911 – 2004
40th President of the United States of America

UPDATE: June 14, 2004, 8:41pm
A slightly more cycnical perspective of the Reagan presidency can be found at Kirktoons [8]

Reagan’s Liberal Legacy

By Joshua Green
The Washington Monthly, January/February 2003


Reaganomics in Context

By Arnold Kling
Tech Central Station, 06/09/2004


Article printed from The Big Picture: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog

URL to article: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2004/06/reagans-centrist-legacy/

URLs in this post:

[1] Bush-Cheney 2004 web site: http://www.bushcheney2004.com/

[2] divisive time: http://www.consortiumnews.com/2004/060704.html

[3] Reaganomics: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2001952177_harrop10.html

[4] the Death of Equities: http://www.fiendbear.com/deatheq.htm

[5] hard right: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/fedagencies/jan-june04/torture_6 8.html

[6] Tech Central Station: http://www.defensecentralstation.com/060904E.html

[7] Washington Monthly: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0301.green.html

[8] Kirktoons: http://www.kirktoons.com/june_2004/images/06_01_04_Remembering_Reagan.jpg

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