Tear down this myth!
You've noticed the wave of counter-revisionism to the Reagan idoltry of late. No? Well here's some I've taken note of.
In New Republic, Jonathan Chait has usefully explained that Reagan and his legacy are complex, and thus a challenge for admirers and detractors alike. No. 40 often reversed himself on core values, in public and private life. That does make it tough for neo-cons to credibly claim Reagan as a reliable hero.
But they do it anyway. It was Reagan, finally, who restored legitimacy to conservatism, effectively a shipwreck from 1933 to 1980 (even Ike was wedded to FDR-era social justice). Also, there's no competent or ideologically correct alternative in the GOP pantheon.
Neo-cons would be challenged to embrace the legacies of Lincoln and TR, among the most progressive presidents. (Lincoln found time during the Civil War to implement the land-grants policy by which the frontier was settled.) How about the Nero-esque trio of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover? Or Ike, a moderate in office who couldn't make up his mind that he was a Republican until the year he was elected president, and then built the Interstate Highway System megaproject? Or Nixon, who created the EPA? Or Bush I, who broke his solemn vow not to raise taxes? Or Bush II, who accumulated the Republic's biggest debt and deficits; in Homeland Security created the biggest new bureaucracy since the Defence Department in 1947; in seniors' pharmacare brought about the biggest new government entitlement program since Medicare; and audaciously intruded on states' rights - cherished by neo-cons - with No Child Left Behind (with the ardently sought assistance of, OMG, Ted Kennedy)?
Chait provides a balanced view of Reagan, the Democrat turncoat, erstwhile union leader (Screen Actors Guild), GE flack, alarmist about the socialist threat posed by Medicare, and B-list star of Bedtime for Bonzo. But there's no getting around the fact that:
The main accomplishment which he's credited, winning the Cold War, is one in which his policies contributed a very small amount. The most important cause of the fall of the Soviet Union by far was its failed, unsustainable political and economic system, which would have eventually collapsed regardless of American policy. ...
Domestically, Reagan had two main accomplishments: One was to legitimize the religious right as a powerful Republican constituency, a change that has continued to reverberate through American politics. The second was to legitimize massive, non-emergency deficits.
If you're at a loss on how Bush II: Return of the Fiscal Spendthrifts came about, handing off to Obama a record debt and deficits (as Reagan did to Bush I, and Bush I did to Bill Clinton - rarely has there been such a yawning gap between what a party stands for and what it does), Chait helpfully recalls that in an unguarded moment Dick Cheney told an interviewer for a book on the Bush II administration that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." That would be high apostasy coming from a genuine conservative, rather than the neo-con variety. But then, the Bushies Redux really did operate in an alternative-reality field. The mystery is how Bush II got re-elected (or re-inaugurated, I should more accurately say), given that most of the damage he wrought was front-loaded in the first of his two terms, along with his well-publicized record of creating fewer jobs than Hoover. Bush's second term made a mockery of his immediate post-election assertion that he'd be no lame duck. "I've got political capital, and I intend to use it," he said in late 2004. The words were barely out of his mouth and Katrina destroyed what remained of a presidency that was more lame duck in its second term even than the twilight years of a chronically bedridden Wilson.
The more frankly liberal Bob Herbert reminds us that Reagan was a self-described "tax-cutter who raised taxes in seven of the eight years of his presidency. He was a budget-cutter who nearly tripled the federal budget deficit."
It is the economic revolution that gained steam during the Reagan years and is still squeezing the life out of the middle class and the poor that is Reagan's most significant legacy. A phony version of that legacy is relentlessly promoted by right-wingers who shamelessly pursue the interests of the very rich while invoking the Reagan brand to give the impression that they are in fact the champions of ordinary people.
Reagan's son, Ron, says in [a Reagan documentary] that he believes his father "was vulnerable to the idea that poor people were somehow poor because it was their fault." A clip is then shown of Ronald Reagan referring to, "The homeless people who are homeless, you might say, by choice."
Yes, a few tireless souls are still searching for the famous "welfare queen" that No. 40 liked to invoke in delegitimizing a welfare state he in fact presided over the enlargement of. (Reagan cut some programs until a Dem-controlled Congress re-funded them. Reagan's preferred method of degrading government was simply not to enforce the laws, and to appoint to his administration cabinet officers like James Watt at Interior and Anne Burford at the EPA who were greatly at odds with the mission of government departments and agencies.
But here's the wild part. A recent poll finds Americans declaring Reagan their favorite president. Another of Reagan's legacies was the "Teflon presidency," a term of Reagan contemporary Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Ca.)
Mencken wrote that the people deserve the government they want, and "they get it good and hard." While not a fan of the anti-Semitic Bard of Baltimore, I acknowlege there's much to that.
My question about oppressed peoples around the world, after agonizing over their plight and including them in my prayers, is why do they put up with what passes for governance in Zimbabwe or Burma? Stalin massacred tens of millions of Russians. At what point does a population vastly outnumbering the ruling cabal simply rise up and remove it? Why does it take so long?
Israel apart - and that's a nation sometimes said to have as many political parties as people, so vibrant is its democracy - is so obviously far advanced on the road to social and industrial progress that you do have to wonder why the events now unfolding elsewhere in the Middle East and in North Africa had to wait until now. I am excited by the overturning of a fetid order. But, my gosh, Mubarak ruled for 30 years, Gaddafi for 40. How long does it take a people to impose their will in service to their own best interests?
So in contemplating Reagan and the stubborn resistance to progressivm that Thomas Frank chronicled in What's The Matter With Kansas?, you do have to assume that, on some level, everyday Americans are broadly content with a status quo that works powerfully against their interests. And sort of leave it at that. Because no one much enjoys shouting into the wind.
I need no convincing that Reagan ushered in three decades of middle-class deterioration, making a hash of the "American Dream." But Americans, notably such unusual suspects as the Teamsters and "Reagan Democrats" in unionized, progressive precincts like Michigan, enthusiastically embraced Reagan's ideal of America, so at variance with the realities of making ends meet on farms and in suburban bunglows. The best we can assume is that Americans are irretrievably bewitched by this depiction of themselves as rugged individualists, even as they collect from Uncle Sam their Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid checks, their 401k middle-class tax breaks and mortgage-interest deductibility (sure wish we had that in Canada), farm support payments, and truckloads of corporate welfare for the down-at-the-heels oil industry.
A non-American trying to grasp this strange country's self-regard can only look to fabulists like like Voltaire, and see in the fantasyland of America's imagining the plot outlines of Candide.
Salon has a series of essays debunking the Reagan mystique:
The racist "Southern strategy" that Nixon hatched and Reagan exploited. (Steve Kornacki)
When Reagan was (much) less popular than Carter. (Steve Kornacki)