I’m down in the Texas Hill Country visiting with my in-laws, and yesterday we drove out to the LBJ Ranch National Historic Park. Then this morning I learned that Margaret Thatcher has passed away. Thatcher and Reagan both strike me as fascinating figures—icons of the Anglophone right who were elected before I was even born and whose substantive legacies in public policy seem to me to be far more praiseworthy than their later influence as icons.
LBJ made me think of this in two ways. One is that because of Vietnam, Johnson never became a heroic figure to American progressives despite Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, federal aid to education, a raft of new national parks and environmental legislation, and a whole truckload of “lesser” bills that would count as major achievements of nearly any other administration. Another is that though Johnson was very much an FDR Democrat, his policies were quite different from FDR’s. Most of all, the central theory of FDR’s domestic policy was an obsessive need to duck and cover on issues of racial justice while LBJ’s policies were all about aiming squarely at the race problem. LBJ didn’t repudiate FDR’s successes, but he didn’t try to replicate or repeat them either. He knew that 1964 wasn’t 1934.
Thatcher, like Ronald Reagan in the United States, became what Johnson never was—more than an influential politician but a generation-defining icon.
And yet while the policies of the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions have been largely successful, the political legacy seems to me to be quite mixed. Listening to contemporary conservatives, you often get the sense that they want to just rerun the policy agenda of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But today the leading global problem is climate change, not Communism. That’s not because Communism isn’t bad, it’s because the Cold War is over. Privatizing state-run industrial companies won’t jump-start growth. That’s not because state-ownership of industrial firms is a good idea, it’s because we don’t have any. Reducing the power of labor unions to curb cost-push inflation doesn’t fix anything because labor unions aren’t powerful anymore. When you triumph, you triumph. But history doesn’t end, new issues come to the front of the stack. We have a crisis of inadequate demand. We have the problem of providing health care to an aging population. Trying to apply the “lessons of Munich” to Vietnam was a disaster. Trying to apply the economic policy solutions of a generation ago to the problems of today is equally inappropriate.