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March 13, 2009

The Reagan Standard: Is a False Narrative Destroying the GOP?

"When I began entering into the give and take of legislative bargaining in Sacramento, a lot of the most radical conservatives who had supported me during the election didn't like it.

"Compromise" was a dirty word to them and they wouldn't face the fact that we couldn't get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don't get it all, some said, don't take anything.

I'd learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: 'I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.'

If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that's what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it.

- Ronald Wilson Reagan

yelbafink.jpg If there has been any consistent theme to my writing over the past 5 years, it has been the importance of perspective.

We humans turn to the past when deeply troubled by events moving too swiftly and unpredictably for our comfort. The perspective of bygone days seems to offer a handhold on current events. For unlike the still uncertain future and the constantly changing present, the past is controllable, frozen, fixed. It's settled: one of the few things we can count on not to mutate in unpredictable and frightening ways.

Or so we think.

Much to our discomfort, observers of history quickly learn that even the past is subject to interpretation. More often than not I find myself surprised and unsettled when looking to history to clarify and make sense of the present.

My preconceived notions about what was are rarely reinforced by journeying back in time. "Wow! That's not how I remember it!", I think to myself (as opposed to thinking to someone else). But history exists not to confirm our biases, but lend context to our understanding of the present. Thus it is that despite the disparate vantage points from which conservatives and liberals view men long dead and controversies long ago settled, I nearly always find common threads in the perplexing and competing views of what was: conclusions even those with diametrically opposed views of history reach seemingly against their will. Often these agreed-upon commonalities undermine the author's most cherished assumptions. Regardless of political affiliation, rude history will snatch the Raisin D'Etre right out of your breakfast bowl and harsh your mellow every time.

The great danger of looking backwards is that the rear view mirror of history is a rose-colored one in which contentious issues are simplified and complex or contradictory information 'disappeared' by those wishing to either villify or lionize imperfect and conflicted men. Fortunately for us, even the most partisan observers generally discover (notwithstanding the personal and political filters we clutch at so desperately) a few inconvenient home truths.

And so it has been with Ronald Wilson Reagan.

During the Republican primaries Reagan's name was invoked so often and so shamelessly that I began to wonder how many debates it would take for his ghost to materialize like a genie conjured from its bottle. I imagined the Gipper rising up in a wisp of smoke, grabbing Mike Huckabee by his shirt collar and body slamming him to the floor before stalking off stage with the Republican nomination clenched in his manly fist. Certainly, pundits and the party faithful seemed far more interested in resurrecting a dead man than supporting any of living, breathing candidates who'd thrown their hats into the ring against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It was then I realized that many Republicans preferred an idealized vision of the past to their disappointing present.

I realized right then and there that we were going to lose this election.

For too many conservatives no mere mortal could hope to live up to the mythic memory of a man long dead and darn it all, if they couldn't have Reagan or his clone, they would stay home.

What they got for their pains was Barack Obama. The magnitude of that mistake; that stubborn refusal to order from the menu, is perhaps best conveyed in pictures:


Daniel Henninger comments:

One finds many charts in a federal budget, most attributed to such deep mines of data as the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The one on page 11 is attributed to "Piketty and Saez."

Either you know instantly what "Piketty and Saez" means, or you don't. If you do, you spent the past two years working to get Barack Obama into the White House. If you don't, their posse has a six-week head start on you.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, French economists, are rock stars of the intellectual left. Their specialty is "earnings inequality" and "wealth concentration."

Messrs. Piketty and Saez have produced the most politically potent squiggle along an axis since Arthur Laffer drew his famous curve on a napkin in the mid-1970s. Laffer's was an economic argument for lowering tax rates for everyone. Piketty-Saez is a moral argument for raising taxes on the rich.

Not even John McCain's fiercest critics can honestly maintain that he would, had he been elected, set about implementing the most radical restructuring of the basic relationship between the federal government and those it governs since the Great Society. Decades after that well-intentioned initiative, the human wreckage continues to pile up. Far from eliminating poverty or equalizing an uneven playing field, LBJ's misguided legacy has wrought 70% black illegitimacy rates and persistent multi-generational poverty. After more than forty years, the exit strategy for the war on poverty is nowhere in sight and we're no closer to winning.

And contrary to comforting Republican mantras, we've failed to roll back the tide. Regardless of who controlled the White House or Congress, federal spending has risen at a constant and accelerating rate.

The truth hurts. And yet it is only by looking at hard facts that we can hope to free ourselves from this mess.

And the truth is that, contrary to the idealized image constructed for Ronald Reagan by conservatives looking for someone to lead us out of the wilderness, the Gipper's factual record is far different from the rose-colored view we cherish because it seems to offer hope. For one thing, while Reagan was a deeply principled man, he never forgot the value of compromise. Both modern retrospectives and contemporaneous commentary confirm this time after time. In "The Reagan I Knew", no less a conservative icon than William F. Buckley, Jr. admitted it was Reagan's principled compromise - not inflexible and doctrinaire ideology - that won the Cold War for us:

Buckley's disagreement with Reagan regarding Gorbachev highlights the contrast between the two men.

An ideologue with political savvy, Buckley packaged his ideas to popularize them but ultimately cared more about staying consistent.

A politician with an ideological edge, Reagan rooted his policies in a broader vision but cared more about staying popular -- and winning. Reagan's surprising nimbleness was a key to his success; he was far more willing to compromise and change than his allies or his opponents expected. Reagan governed in America's great centrist tradition of muscular moderation, balancing the ideal and the real, the politics of what should be done with the politics of what could be done.

A contemporaneous source shows a president who quickly learned that priorities and reality often trump even the strongest principles:

On August 2, 1988, President Ronald Reagan announced that he had changed his mind about the pro-union plant-closing bill. He had vetoed it three months earlier, but now let it become law without his signature after intense pressure from presidential nominee George Bush and former Treasury Secretary James Baker, now Bush's campaign chairman. Reagan claimed that only this action would enable him to sign a Congressional trade bill almost unequaled in its anti-consumer protectionism.

Ronald Reagan's faithful followers claim he has used his skills as the Great Communicator to reverse the growth of Leviathan and inaugurate a new era of liberty and free markets. Reagan himself said, "It is time to check and reverse the growth of government."

Yet after nearly eight years of Reaganism, the clamor for more government intervention in the economy was so formidable that Reagan abandoned the free-market position and acquiesced in further crippling of the economy and our liberties.

A colleague from his California days recalls Reagan's rejection of hard line politics:

How do modern conservatives reconcile Reagan's domestic legacy as California's governor, such as legalizing abortion and radically increasing welfare spending in the state?

They don't. Largely they ignore it.

Because he abandoned these positions when he became president?

Not really. For example, he said he was against Roe v. Wade, but he never once in eight years spoke to the annual meeting in Washington of the Right to Life Coalition. Never once. He would send a message. So I think one must look at his practice, both as governor and as president, as not hard line - certainly not as hard line as some in the religious right would have wished him to be.

That's an important part of why he was able to govern so effectively. He took what might be perceived as the rough edge off of conservatism, but at the same time he certainly did capture the support of the social conservatives, largely by running against President Gerald Ford [in 1976, for the GOP presidential nomination].

What do you mean by the "rough edge"?

The sense that if you're not with us, you're against us. That we cannot reasonably reach an accommodation, which is of course the nature of compromise and the nature of the American political system. For some, the issue of abortion does not admit compromise. But President Reagan never seemed to have that view, no doubt dating from his days as governor. So people ignore it. The social conservative wing tends to make Reagan more of an absolutist on the social issues than he really was.

An analogous situation is Senator Barry Goldwater's support for gay rights. It's probably not widely known, but he made the comment [in the early 1990s] that you don't have to be straight to shoot straight. He thought it was fine to be gay and be in the military: why should we have a rule against gay people serving our country in the military. You'll never hear that from a social conservative. I suppose all of us do this: we take our icons and try to make them more in the image of what we wish them to be.

As governor of California, Reagan's may have talked the talk, but he didn't always walk the walk. His willingness to bow to reality even when it conflicted with his deeply held principles refutes the view of him as inflexible and uncompromising:

An avowed opponent of big government, Reagan, during his gubernatorial tenure, coined one of his most famous declarations: "Government is not the solution -- government is the problem."

Yet, despite promises to slash bureaucracy, state spending increased from $4.6 billion to more than $10.2 billion when he left office in 1974.

He personally opposed abortion on religious grounds, yet signed the state's law legalizing abortion, the most liberal in the nation at the time.

He promised never to raise taxes, and then agreed, in his first year in office, to nearly $1 billion in tax increases. He had the last word, however. By the time his tenure ended, he had signed almost $6 billion in tax rebates and, despite the growth in government, more than 300,000 names had been removed from the state's welfare rolls.

"He was a pragmatist from the beginning," said John Bunzel, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who was appointed president of San Jose State University during Reagan's governorship.

"He allowed a lot of the people around him to do the dirty work of politics. He never really did the dirty work. He was able to stay above the fray, essentially, I think, because he was always sure of himself," said Bunzel, who also served as head of the political science department at San Francisco State during the student protests and riots of the mid-1960s.

"He never carried his ideology to the point where it became bitter or inflexible. The strength of the man was his ability to get along with people and settle for half a loaf," Bunzel said.

Hmmm... a strong ideologue who was forced to compromise when he found his constituents didn't all agree with him. Where have we heard that before? What is perhaps most discomfiting is the actual record of an icon renowed for his ardent defense of (and supposed effectiveness in bringing about) fiscal responsibility and reductions in the size of government. Here again, a few pictures are worth a thousand words:



Fred Barnes refutes the cherished notions of both conservatives and liberals regarding Ronald W. Reagan. What is revealed is a complex picture. In reality, Reagan was neither the uncompromising giant of conservative myth nor the compliant pragmatist of liberal lore. What he was, was a shrewd politician who understood that sometimes one must verbally champion one thing while doing exactly the opposite; one who understood the role of compromise in preserving priorities:

Conservatives attack Mr. Bush most vehemently on excessive government spending, and there they have a point. He could have been more frugal, despite the exigent circumstances, especially in his first term. But it's also on the spending issue that the Reagan myth--Reagan as the relentless swashbuckler against spending--is most pronounced. He won an estimated $35 billion in spending cuts in 1981, his first year in office. After that, spending soared, so much so that his budget director David Stockman, who found himself on the losing end of spending arguments, wrote a White House memoir with the subtitle, "Why the Reagan Revolution Failed."

With Reagan in the White House, spending reached 23.5% of GDP in 1984, the peak year of the military buildup. Under Mr. Bush, the top spending year is 2005 at 20.1% of GDP, though it is expected to rise as high as 20.7% this year, driven upward by Iraq and hurricane relief.

Mr. Reagan was a small government conservative, but he found it impossible to govern that way. He made tradeoffs. He gave up the fight to curb domestic spending in exchange for congressional approval of increased defense spending. He cut taxes deeply but signed three smaller tax hikes. Rather than try to reform Social Security, he agreed to increase payroll taxes.

The myth would have it that Reagan was tireless in shrinking the size of government, a weak partisan always ready to deal with Democrats, and not the hardliner we thought he was. The opposite is true. Reagan compromised, as even the most conservative politicians often do, to save his political strength for what mattered most--defeating the Soviet empire and keeping taxes low.

Reagan won two terms in office because he was - first and foremost - a politician. He was a gifted communicator whose rhetoric refused to compromise on some conservative ideals; but when viewed dispassionately through the lens of history, both his foreign and domestic policy balanced idealism with expediency:

Viewed in the post-George W. Bush era, Reagan seems a greater president than ever. Not because all he touched turned to gold—far from it—but simply because the contrast in demeanor between Reagan and his most recent Republican successor is so great. No one would accuse either man of being detail-oriented, but the Great Communicator had a charm that worked wonders.

Nonetheless, since Reagan is deified by conservatives today it’s unfortunate that the Republican Party hasn’t learned that what worked in 1980 is not necessarily applicable or directly transferrable to 2009. America—and the world—have changed. The GOPs declarations of fealty to the Reaganite Ideal would be more impressive if the party didn’t seem to have failed to learn from the essentially pragmatic approach Reagan pursued. Even Iran-Contra, after all, was a marriage between pragmatism (get the hostages home) and principle (support the Contras). Nor, for that matter, was Reagan the champion of small government or fiscal rectitude that his admirers sometimes pretend he was. Once again, the Idea of Reagan has trumped the reality.

Though foreigners saw Reagan as an ideologue, it’s now clear that he was much less rigid in his thinking than the GOP is now. Withdrawing from Lebanon and dialogue with the Soviets were twin episodes that showed the practical, realistic side of Reaganism. His successors prefer the comforts of dogma to the inconvenience of compromise.

With the Republican party in disarray and the prospect of titanic changes to the fundamental structure of the economy and the federal government looming over us, it's understandable to wish for an idealized comic book hero to rescue us from the wilderness. But Ronald Reagan's strength was not his inflexibility but his sense of priorities.

He understood that you need to possess power before you can wield it and that in the long run, no one living in the real world can avoid trade-offs. Everything has a cost.

It's a shame that Reagan's true genius - clear sighted, pragmatic leadership - has been obscured by a myth no modern candidate can hope to live up to. We don't need a myth to regain the White House.

We need a strong candidate who can see the forest for the trees. Sadly, I'm not sure we're capable of recognizing such a candidate any more.

Ronald Reagan was a politician. And politicians — smart ones at least — understand that a dogged determination to follow a straight line, particularly in foreign policy, is not always the shortest route to victory. This is something critics, in both parties, of George Bush's Iraq compromises should keep in mind.

Still, it is a sign of the poor repute of ideas and idealism in this country today that so many people believe there's a contradiction between being humane, decent, and practical and being "ideological."

Ideology, properly understood, is a checklist of priorities and principles. And conservative ideology explicitly accepts that compromise is part of life, since this world can never be made as perfect as the next.

Jonah Goldberg

Posted by Cassandra at March 13, 2009 05:29 AM

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Amazing, isn't it?

"If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that's what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it."
Which also dovetails with the need to present a message that will draw a broad base of support. That strength during the initial negotiation, allows you to stake out a much more ambitious position/goal than the one that you are willing and prepared to accept.

Ask for the solar system, settle for the moon. Ronnie was a master in that regard too.

I'd say that this lesson has been taken to heart by the progressives while it would seem as if it has slipped from the memory of many on the conservative side of the divide.

Posted by: bt_have-abacus-will-travel_hun at March 13, 2009 10:55 AM

One of those articles (I forget which one) mentioned that Reagan was also adept - and succeeded - because he seized the tide of public opinion.

At the time, student unrest made his seemingly unyielding rhetoric seem comforting and reassuring.

There were other examples of his being wise enough to play to his audience without compromising his beliefs. He emphasized some things while minimizing others, keeping always in mind his priorities. And when he suffered a setback, as he did after his first year in office, he regrouped, negotiated a compromise, and continued on his way.

I think that with the constant scrutiny of 24/7 media and the Internet, we're losing sight of the forest for the trees.

No candidate is perfect. What we ought to be looking for is ability to get things done. That's why I backed Romney. Sadly, this party won't nominate a Mitt Romney so we need to find someone else.

Right now, my dream ticket is Mitt Romney (P) and Newt Gingrich (VP) :p

Yeah. I'm smoking crack. But I can dream.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 13, 2009 11:05 AM

Unlike many, I too like my homie Newt. Smart fellow, strategic thinker and he has the tactical sense to know when to seize the moment and when to negotiate.

Oh yeah, as usual, the post was nicely put M'lady.

Posted by: bt_have-abacus-will-travel_hun at March 13, 2009 11:10 AM

Sssss, ssssss, EAR! *passes the crack pipe back to the princess*

Posted by: bt_have-abacus-will-travel_hun at March 13, 2009 11:11 AM

Ask for the solar system, settle for the moon. Ronnie was a master in that regard too.

That was my problem with many of the GOP candidates. They wouldn't ask for the solar system and settle for the moon. They'd ask for the moon and settle on the ocean floor.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at March 13, 2009 11:31 AM

(admittedly I didn't get through all of this post and was skimming towards the end)

I hope I didn't miss this being pointed out...but I would like to register the point that Reagan never dealt with anything but Democrat-controlled legislatures in California or as President (Bush had a Republican controlled Congress to work with from 2001 through 2006, which is why the disappointment was more profound amongst conservatives). Think that didn't make a difference when Reagan had to find places to 'compromise'? 'OK, we'll spend more on missiles, but you've got to spend more on this, this, and this.' 'Well, OK.' Most of what even these insiders have to say is nothing more than speculation since Reagan never had the opportunity to simply push his own agenda. If some can remember him as a pragmatic compromiser that didn't walk the talk, then others can remember him for what he said and espoused, despite what he was forced to compromise on to get anything at all done. How this applies to now...I dunno, but trying to emulate what Reagan espoused, despite the fact that he was forced into compromises, still doesn't sound like such a bad idea. The opposite is also true, if you want to look at it that way - look at the left's adulation of Clinton, despite his numerous compromises, such as on welfare, forced by a Republican congress - 'I'll trade you a tax hike for welfare reform'.

Posted by: Falze at March 13, 2009 11:34 AM

It's not funny, but it would be hard to argue that you are not correct in your observation of the current crop of negotiators YAG. But I did get a chuckle out of it anyway.

Posted by: bt_have-abacus-will-travel_hun at March 13, 2009 11:39 AM

I think you're overlooking something.

The party today is not the party Reagan inherited, or the one he rebuilt. It has been asserted that Reagan wasn't one to compromise his principles, but clearly he was. Social conservatives were furious with Mitt Romney over compromises he made as governor of a Dem state (helloooooo.... ) while blithely overlooking the fact that Reagan's history of compromising was longstanding and encompassed both his Presidency and his time as governor of California.

What is being asserted is the erroneous view that, if you just talk loud enough, you won't have to give in on any of your fundamental principles.

That's nonsense on stilts and it way overemphasizes the actual power of the Executive.

We never like having our view of things called into question. I know I don't. But, like Reagan, we live in the real world - not a fantasy world. And in a country that's growing increasingly urban and progressive, a refusal to compromise isn't an option.

Oh, and by the way, you might want to read Thomas Sowell's brilliant summation of the supposedly loyal majority Bush had to work with:


President Bush has taken on too many tough fights -- Social Security being a classic example -- to be regarded as a man who is personally weak. What is weak is the Republican majority in the Senate.

When it comes to taking on a tough fight with the Senate Democrats over judicial nominations, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist doesn't really have a majority to lead. Before the President nominated anybody, before he even took the oath of office for his second term, Senator Arlen Specter was already warning him not to nominate anyone who would rile up the Senate. Later, Senator John Warner issued a similar warning. It sounded like a familiar Republican strategy of pre-emptive surrender.

Before we can judge how the President played his hand, we have to consider what kind of hand he had to play. It was a weak hand -- and the weakness was in the Republican Senators.

Say what you will about her, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid excel at smash mouth politics.

Our own party, not so much.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 13, 2009 12:04 PM

Monica Crowley bruoght up Reagan and how the Chinese are coping with down turn in Market. I include the link with my Week In Review.

In honor of Jim Cramer, I am going to dedicate this next video to President Barack Obama. Barack Obama, doesn’t care about Rich People! Kayne West "Heartless" GRIN!


Posted by: Ree at March 13, 2009 01:58 PM

"...familiar Republican strategy of pre-emptive surrender."
all too familiar...

Posted by: bt_have-abacus-will-travel_hun at March 13, 2009 03:11 PM

I loved that line :p
It's a classic.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 13, 2009 03:24 PM

I think the pre-emptive surrender comes from the way that Republicans EXPECT to be attacked by the Media (and thus it was under Ronaldus Magnus), and so are frequently unwilling to get out in front of the public on certain matters, so to speak.
The Democrats can almost always count on the Media to support them, unless they turn out to be blazingly wrong. They are always willing to go 'a bridge too far', and thus appear politically tougher.
For example, when I think of what a political and human dunderhead Sherrod Brown is (one of my Senators), and the accord he gets in the papers, it is to laugh. When he was Ohio Secretary of State, there was someone in his office that was openly dealing drugs, and it was in the papers. What a dunce. The present Ohio Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, was one of his underlings in those days (my wife knew her from when she worked in the Statehouse in the '80's), and she's a real prize, too.

But I digress.

Reagan was always opposed by Tip O'Neil in the House, who never hesitated to publically stick him with the sharp knife, but privately seemed to like Reagan. It is, in retrospect, hard to decode that relationship.
And who can forget the Boland amendment, which O'Neil and Boland conjured to undermine Reagan foreign policy. It could've brought down the whole executive branch, had conditions been different.
IMHO, Nancy Pelosi is not nearly as bright and politically adept as O'Neil was, yet just as partisan. There does not seem to be as much realism on her part as there have been in other Democrat House Speakers. Steny Hoyer would be a big improvement over Pelosi as Speaker.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 13, 2009 03:38 PM

...and so are frequently unwilling to get out in front of the public on certain matters, so to speak.

Oooh! OOOOHHHH!!!! Let ME! I'll jump on that grenade!

Posted by: Chucky Schumer at March 13, 2009 03:46 PM

Reagan was always opposed by Tip O'Neil in the House, who never hesitated to publically stick him with the sharp knife, but privately seemed to like Reagan.

Reagan had that rare gift in politics: the ability to disagree vehemently - even violently - and yet convey both respect for his opponents and a sense of humor about the whole thing.

That is a quality all too rare in today's politics. If we disagree with someone, we impugn their motives and their character.

There are times when my disgust with this is so strong that I don't want to have anything more to do with the whole mess. When did we lose the ability to marvel at that gloriously unpredictable and preciously unique thing called the human mind? Why do we seek to impose rigid conformity on those with whom we disagree?

I cherish those who disagree with me. I will argue forcefully in defense of my ideals, but I don't understand rancor.

It is all so pointless. I am so far from perfect that I see no profit in judging others. Intellectually, I may think they're misguided or just plain wrong. But behind the ideas there is a human whose life and experiences I haven't shared and can't possibly fathom.

I know how many times in life a painful experience has changed my perspective. How, then, can I judge those whose pains I've never suffered? I can only judge myself, and that is enough.

There but for the grace of God... and no doubt they think the same of me.

Posted by: Cass at March 13, 2009 07:52 PM

Then there are those pesky social scientists who subjectively rewrite objective history for partisan ends. No wonder we have difficulty negotiating and compromising when our individual perspectives are skewed by faulty standards of education.

It is as if we were singing from different hymnals.

Posted by: vet66 at March 14, 2009 07:45 AM

It continually amazes me how much information is pruned from public school curricula in the name of "diversity".

Posted by: Cass at March 14, 2009 09:47 AM

I am not convinced the perpetrators of this 'pruning' are driven by something as benign as diversity. I have this nagging suspicion that their motives are more sinister in purpose and design.

When does revising become the evil twin of rewriting history?

Posted by: vet66 at March 14, 2009 10:16 PM