Thursday, January 24, 2013

Yes, Reagan did change the trajectory

Jonathan Bernstein would have us believe that the notion that Ronald Reagan, in Obama's words, "changed the trajectory of American politics" is a mirage -- and Obama would do well to stop chasing it.

It's one more salvo in the continuing campaign of political scientists who engage with the broader public to convince us (with pesky evidence) that almost nothing that we think matters in politics really matters, or matters much, or matters in the way we think it does. Here's the core of Bernstein's 'untransformational Reagan' argument:
Take a look at the Reagan myth. Did Reagan “ideologically shift the nation in his direction?” If we’re talking about voters, the answer is pretty clearly no. As Northeastern political scientist Bill Mayer showed in The Changing American Mind, if anything, public opinion on many issues became more liberal, not more conservative, during Reagan’s presidency (see also a nice post from George Washington University political scientist John Sides).

Did Reagan cast a shadow over subsequent policy debates? Sure, but no more than any other two-term occupant of the Oval Office—certainly not through fundamental conservative change. The growth of government, after cuts in 1981, started back up while Reagan was still president, and it’s hard to see Reagan’s influence in such measures as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). Reagan was, of course, a cold warrior, but so was everyone from Truman on—even Jimmy Carter.

Notwithstanding that Reagan may not have changed broad public opinion much, I think that he was in fact transformational, by means that Bernstein implicitly acknowledges.

First, implemented policy matters, as Bernstein notes in an exhortation to Obama:
Add it all up and Obama, if he wants to be a president who really changes things for the better, should … well, it’s boring and obvious, but he should mostly focus on promoting good public policy. Not fighting the good fight or talking the good talk for liberal ideals, but just getting done whatever he can get done given all the constraints that surround him. Well-implemented plans will be hard for subsequent presidents to displace. And presidents who make good policy tend to be popular, thereby ensuring that partisans seek to replace them (not only immediately, but into the future) with similar candidates. In other words, he should pretty much focus on being a good president, and let the rest of it take care of itself.
Reagan radically changed our tax code. He cut the top income tax rate from somewhere around 70% to 28% and dramatically reduced the number of brackets. He later signed off on a deal that "saved" Social Security by sharply increasing payroll taxes. The two changes made the tax code less progressive. It's true that after the first major cut, incremental tax hikes by Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton gradually clawed back a good deal of the foregone revenue. But Bush Jr., espousing Reaganomics, subsequently gave back a large portion of the reclaimed revenue  -- and we still labor within a tax framework erected by Reagan.

The second point is that if Reagan had little or no long-term effect on broad public opinion, he had a transformative effect on Republican rhetoric and dogma and therefore, to some extent (perhaps Bernstein would dispute this), on Republican practice. Bernstein half-acknowledges at least the rhetorical impact:
Any successful two-term president has the material to build a myth around, and Reagan (unlike Ike) has happened to benefit from a group dedicated to deifying him. His strengths were rhetorical, and people who write about politics like well-crafted words (people who televise politics like well-delivered words), so his rhetorical strengths tend to be overrated.
It's not just political writers and taking heads who were influenced by Reagan's rhetoric: Republican politicians were too. In fact, in our contemporary political environment, at least on its right wing, the talking- head tail often wags the policymaking dog. Despite his frequent compromising with Democrats, Reagan articulated -- matchlessly, in Republican eyes -- the GOP's government-is-the-problem, taxes-kill-enterprise credos that have since hardened into dogma.

Bernstein argues that it's too early to judge the long-term impact of Reagan's policies. Maybe, but his signature tax cut was either effective or seemed effective, and economic growth was strong enough over the course of  his two terms to fuel Republican claims going forward that tax cuts always drive growth, and that adequately funding government social programs always stifles growth.  The appearance of policy success lent force to the rhetoric in followers' eyes, thereby ensuring its enshrinement as party dogma.

Obama could prove as lucky as Reagan and reap the benefits of a long-delayed strong economic recovery.  The key to his legacy, I'd agree, would be good policymaking, not least through the hard slog of successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the face of unrelenting sabotage. But the real possibility also exists that he will arm Democrats, conceptually and rhetorically, for decades to come with compelling articulations of what's required (from a liberal point of view) to fulfill the promises implicit in the nation's founding documents.

Update: What's the danger for Obama is chasing the liberal Reagan mantle?


  1. "Reagan radically changed our tax code. He cut the top income tax rate from somewhere around 70% to 28% and dramatically reduced the number of brackets. He later signed off on a deal that "saved" Social Security by sharply increasing payroll taxes." Okay, that's a lapse in "Presidential Green Lanterism" right there. Reagan singed into law bills that lowered the income tax rate and raised payroll taxes, but these bills were passed because of the conservative coalition that controlled congress not because Reagan was good at giving speeches, a President Bob Dole could have done the same thing. And the flip side of that coin proves the limits of the Emperor Reagan thesis even more, Reagan's goal was not just cut taxes, but cut taxes and massively reduce domestic spending. The same House or Representatives that passed the tax cuts with GOP and Southern Democratic (the so called "boll weevils") votes didn't pass the giant roll back of the state that conservatives had dreamed of. Why? Because moderate Republicans in Congress from the North East and Midwest (the so called "gypsy moths") revolted and wouldn't support the big cuts. Hence the legacy of the Reagn years, big tax cuts, much smaller reductions in government spending and huge deficits. Hence David Stockman's book:

    So yeah, Bernstein is right, Reagan had an impact but things like who controls Congress and party dynamics in 20th Century American politics matter a heck of a lot more.

    1. Well sure, it took a team and a movement, but you might as well deny individual human agency altogether as not credit Reagan for making the case and getting the tax cuts done. I can't speak to Dole, but I do recall in the 1980 primary John Anderson saying Reagan could only enact his cut taxes/raise defense spending/balance budget plans "with mirrors" and Bush Sr. transmuting that crack to "voodoo economics." I don't think there was GOP consensus at that point for Reagan's level of tax cut or party-wide buy-in to supply-side economics. Politicians may not reshape public opinion, but they can catch, ride and to a limited extent steer a wave, and Reagan did that, no?