“It was not a revolution but a reaction”—on the Presidency of Ronald Reagan
—From “The quotations of Chairman Joe”
Yesterday ended a week-long series of remembrance, marking what would have been the 100th birthday of Ronald Wilson Reagan, USA Today featured a banner headline “Reagan Revolution” with a large picture of our 40th president on the front page.
It was not a revolution. It was a reaction.
What the festivities demonstrated more than anything else is the selective memory or, if you will, the selective amnesia that pervades this country; as if the 8 long years of his administration had made it, as depicted in a bit of 1984 campaign propaganda, truly “morning in America”. Such a reading, as with all things conservative, simply cannot withstand the harsh scrutiny of the historical record.
The historical record that belies the political career of Ronald Reagan began, of course in California. Upon election as Governor he promised a 10% across the board tax cut (sound familiar) but responding to pressing reality quickly reduced it to 6 per cent.
“Even with these ‘economies;” wrote Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page in their seminal “An American Melodrama The Presidential Campaign of 1968", there is no way to stop the cost of running California from going up. Too many people arrive every day to overload the state’s already tautly stretched services. In the summer of 1967, Reagan found himself obliged to ask the legislature for a billion-dollar tax increase
to finance a record five-billion-plus budget.” (1) A bit more than a year in office Reagan would set a pattern that he would follow throughout his public life: after initially reducing taxes he would then pivot 180 degrees and begin a long series of tax increases to repair the damage. Taxes that, unfortunately, would be not progressive but regressive in nature; that is, taxes that would fall disproportionately on the middle classes.
This pattern would be repeated. Upon assuming the Presidency in 1981 he quickly passed a series of tax cuts, cutting the marginal rates on the wealthiest Americans from 72% down to 35, then, briefly, down to 29%. What followed was long series of tax increases–11 such increases during Reagan’s own terms, followed by the famous tax increase under “Pappy” Bush (for which Bush was to pay a steep political price), and another under Clinton before the damage to the federal budget could be undone. The damage to the country, leading as it did to the acceleration of the concentrations of wealth and the hollowing out of the middle class, has yet to be rectified.
Secondly, his apologists also fail to own up to the fact that neither the size of the federal government nor the level of federal spending went down under Reagan. The record demonstrates, as does his earlier record as Governor of California precisely the opposite. It would take Jerry Brown in California and Bill Clinton in Washington (both Democrats) to reign in on the growth of government largesse.
Third, Reagan’s legacy in foreign affairs bears little resemblance to the historical record. In fact any such similarities between how he is now remembered and the actual events that occurred are pure coincidence. Today he is seen by his apologists as a Sabre-rattling warrior who stood up to our adversaries. The events in Lebanon, Nicaragua, San Salvador, demonstrate otherwise. Sure he took on such military powers as Granada, but his record as an actor in foreign policy is spotty at best. The famous rapproachment with the old Soviet Union is a case in point. Beginning his presidency with strident warnings of the “evil empire” and adopting a hard-line approach he was brought, by the end of his administration to precisely the opposite positions of “trust but verify”. What brought this about was not the military build-up causing the Soviet Union to collapse under the strain of maintaining the arms race, rather it was the internal collapse of the Soviet economy which was occurring in any case. Reagan simply happened to have the good fortune of presiding at the time of the collapse. In fact this scenario was predicted as early as the late 1940's by the diplomat George Kennan who as deputy Ambassador to the Soviet Union under Averill Harriman, outlined precisely this outcome as he put forward what would become America’s “Containment” policy: the blueprint for our Cold War strategy.(2) Citing Fred Chernoff in an article in “International Affairs 67" (1991) Sean Wilentz in his book “The Age of Reagan” said that “reliable estimates show that the Soviet Union’s annual rate of increase in procurements [for the military] fell from an average of 7.02 percent between 1977 and 1982 to 5.94 percent over the next two years. The change appears to have begun in 1980. The figures contradict some of Reagan’s assertions at the time–and they contradict the arguments that Reagan’s buildup won the cold war by damaging the soviet economy” Indeed Wilentz concludes that the decline of Soviet arms spending and the state of the Soviet economy began before the Reagan rearmament programs or the construction of SDI otherwise known as “star wars”. (3)
In fact, it could more reasonably be argued, the decline of the Soviet economy and the unraveling of the Soviet Empire began under Jimmy Carter.
Reagan, as always, was more lucky than good. It wasn’t his particular posture that brought the results but were the consequences of a generation-long foreign policy begun under Truman and followed by every succeeding administration, plus–as Kennan predicted so presciently decades earlier–the Soviet Union’s own internal contradictions.
Reagan was there to pick up the pieces. Clearly seeing what his advisor’s did not –that the Soviet Union was now, for economic reasons, desperate to negotiate–Reagan found himself opposite an adversary in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev who was more realist than ideologue.
This leads us, by degrees, to the fourth consideration of the Reagan Legacy: his ideological purity. Years before he became President, not yet 2 years into his governorship of California, the British journalists Chester, Hodgson and Page, had this to say about Ronald Reagan:
To see Reagan as the “Crown Prince of Goldwaterism” is to “see Reagan as something other than he is. He is a public-relations man, not a policy maker. Many actors feel the need to break out of role-playing and take possession of the action, but Reagan apparently felt no such yearning in his long acting career. He was not director material. Nor is he a politician. His is willingly at the mercy of experts and interests backing him. He can sell the policy, but he cannot make it. If taxes have to be raised, he will raise them and make it look as palatable as possible by blaming his predecessors’ “spendthrift” policies, just as easily as he can promise in a campaign to trim government action to the bone.” (4)
“The total phenomenon is a recognizable one. In Reagan’s mind there is no contradiction between his personal sense of righteousness, his antiquated small-town philosophy, and his response to the pressures of the moment. It would not strike him as essentially bizarre that he should turn down a request to inspect the state’s mental institutions more closely while making himself available for out-of-state fundraising jamborees. So he cannot be explained as a primitive, or a cynic, or a smart aleck. He is less sinister, but much more dangerous, than any of these. What resolves the contradictions is the realization that Reagan is totally devoid of any concept of objective morality. In short, he has no imagination. And so, to ask whether Reagan is good or bad is, in a sense, an irrelevant question. He is a force–whether for good or ill depending entirely on which direction he is pointed in and who is at the controls.” (5)
This was the assessment of three British reporters covering the presidential election of 1968, a contest in which Reagan, albeit briefly, was a candidate. Analyzing the ‘actors’ in the great American Melodrama, these men viewing American politics from the outside and, perhaps, more objectively were able to tellingly apprise the strengths and the weaknesses of what was later to become the Reagan Era.
Reagan went into politics, in large part, to cut his own personal taxes. Beyond that, as the analysis here suggests, there was not much of a political compass. A former New Deal Democrat turned Republican because of his tax bracket, he could easily adopt any role. On becoming Governor of the State of California in 1967, a reporter asked him what kind of governor he would make. “ I don’t know”, replied the affable actor, “I’ve never played the part of governor before”.
“He is a force–whether for good or ill depending entirely on which direction he is pointed and who is at the controls.”
Under the influence of Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, Donald Regan and several emerging Neocons like Elliot Abrams and Jean Kilpatrick, Reagan–taking the hard line could rattle the sabres. He could, following the lead of McFarlane, North, Regan and Abrams and over the objections of Secretary of State Schultz and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, begin a straight arms for hostages deal with the Iranians and in the process divert the proceeds to illegally funnel money to a terrorist organization in an effort to destabilize the elected government of Nicaragua. The “Iran-Contra” affair would nearly topple his presidency, saved from impeachment by a Democratic Congress that had no stomach for another impeachment proceeding and, in any case, did not want to elevate George W. Bush to the presidency. Once again, Reagan was more lucky than good.
Writing of the political climate of 1968, the three British reporters made a salient observation. “All nations have their myths”, they wrote, “and there is some merit in them as the bond of unity and the spur to effort. The danger, for a nation as for an individual, comes when the gap between rhetoric and reality becomes too wide. In an individual, such a gap between self-perception and reality is known as psychosis. A nation that indulges in too much self-glorifying rhetoric while unable to win a small war or to prevent the deterioration of its social fabric is unlikely to be able to heal its real distempers”.(6)
If anything, the Reagan Legacy presenting as it did the face of ideological purity, limited government, lower taxes, a strong posture on national defense, a belief in small-town family values and a “strict construction” of the constitution did little to heal the emerging American psychosis. In fact it materially contributed to it enlarging what in 1968 was then called the “credibility gap”. For in practice Reagan’s policies, represented in large measure, the exact opposite. This served only to greatly increase the alienation and cynicism of the citizenry, adding to the National Psychosis, so clearly evident in the emerging “Reagan Legacy” and greatly increasing paranoia as that ‘legacy’ fades in the light of stark reality. A paranoia for which America was already widely famous.
The fact is that Ronald Reagan was not a revolutionary, he was a reactionary. It was the difference between the ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric posing as a populist movement in defense of main street America, and his reactionary ‘corporatist’ actions which favored Wall street and savaged Main Street, that made the beleaguered middle class feel as though it were under assault. It is in response to this assault–so greatly accelerated by the Reagan administration–that the middle class feels so persecuted, so alienated, so angry. It is through the misleading of the country that Ronald Reagan materially contributed to the psychosis that today finds expression in the nonsense on the idiot right, further dividing the country, creating in its wake paranoia and political paralysis.
At his worst, when he was led by the counsel of the emerging Neo-cons, he would produce a legacy of law-breaking, coverup, and scandal. At his best, when he recognized the changes that were occurring in the Soviet Union and began serious arms reduction negotiations, he was led in that direction by his wife Nancy who had moved to replace the ideologues in the White House with more sane, more moderate men. Fortunately, for the aging actor, it was just in time to save his embattled presidency.
What kind of President would Ronald Reagan be? That was the question following the election of 1980. The answer would depend on who would, at any given time, be writing the script.
1. Chester, Lewis, Hodgson, Godfrey, and Page, Bruce. “An American Melodrama, The Presidential Campaign of 1968". The Viking Press, New York. Page 195
2. Wilentz, Sean “The Age of Reagan, A History 1974-2008" Harper Collins
New York, 2008. Pp245-287
3. Wilentz, page 247
4. Chester, et.al. Page 195
5. Chester, et.al., Pp.196-97
6. Chester, et.al., page 44