Reagan vs. Clinton

Dear Dinesh,

       First, best wishes for Christmas and a good New Year. I’d thank you for your comment about my “gallantly” engaging this discussion, but there was no gallantry involved. I’ve enjoyed rebutting your assertions. I might have taken your kind words just a bit more seriously if you hadn’t used them as an occasion for giving a backhanded bash to Arthur Schlesinger, Strobe Talbott, and Garry Wills. And, really, Dinesh: Do you honestly think the fact they have chosen to ignore your book is a sign that you have exposed “whopping errors” or that they have gone “into hiding”? There are, I think, alternative explanations that are far more compelling.
       I’m glad you thought trading arms for hostages with Iran was a bad idea. Funny, though, that you want us to take Ronald Reagan very seriously but want to write off his dealings with Iran as a sign that he was “gullible.” Where it’s convenient, you want to assert his greatness and shrewdness. Where you have to explain away something, you fall back onto the very rhetoric about his being a “dummy” that you assail his critics for using. It’s certainly a passable debating tactic, but it’s hardly in keeping with the argument you’re trying to make. I’m willing to assume that Reagan thought through his actions, and to hold him accountable for them.
       Dinesh, I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong about Reagan taking a strong leadership role on tax reform. You credit Reagan for negotiating a compromise. “Republicans would agree to close loopholes if Democrats would agree to lower tax rates.” That wasn’t Reagan’s idea. It’s what Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Dick Gephardt suggested. And the pressure for tax reform came when outside groups exposed the impact of Reagan’s own tax program.
       Don’t believe me on this. In Showdown at Gucci Gulch, their definitive and widely praised account of the battle for tax reform, Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray (both, at the time, of the Wall Street Journal) note that Bradley began pushing for tax reform in 1981. They also note that it was a report by Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice that set off the battle. McIntyre was (and remains) a sharp critic of the original Reagan tax program. In October 1984, he issued a report finding that 128 of 250 large and profitable companies “paid no federal income taxes in at least one year between 1981 and 1983.” Seventeen of the companies paid no taxes whatsoever in all three years.
       Yes, Reagan, shrewd politician that he was, responded to the pressure. He called for reform in his State of the Union address in January of 1984, but immediately undercut his own rhetoric. As Birnbaum and Murray note, “those watching the president might have been convinced by the president’s sincerity, had it not been for the very next line” of his speech. Reagan said, “I have asked that specific recommendations, consistent with these objectives, be presented to me by December 1984.” They further note: “The presidential election was in November, and the president’s promise seemed no more than a cynical ploy to deflect the issue until the election had passed. … Tax reform seemed no more than a joke.” Even when the president actually proposed reform in his 1985 State of the Union address, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal the very next day backing away from corporate tax increases that were part of his own plan. Birnbaum and Murray wrote: “The president seemed to misunderstand the very heart of the ‘excellent reform plan’ he had praised the night before.”
       I don’t want to take away from the fact that Reagan eventually signed the law or that some important people in his administration did good work on tax reform. I dwell on this to underscore the fact that you seem less interested in the history of what actually happened in the Reagan years than in canonizing your man. The tax-reform battle underscores many of his weaknesses, even if he did end up supporting what his advisers, in cooperation with Bradley and Gephardt, came up with.
       On the economy generally, you continue to stick with generalities. You attribute the economic growth of the 1980s to “sharply lower marginal tax rates.” But if that were true, the higher marginal tax rates passed under Clinton should have wrecked things. On the contrary, the economy has been stronger since the higher taxes helped close the deficit.
       (By the way, if the economy should begin going south because of the mess in Asia, we may find ourselves wanting some deficits again. Should the downturn come, I fully expect you to change your argument yet again and claim that this economic period has nothing whatever to do with Reagan and everything to do with Clinton. Such is the nature of claims rooted primarily in hero worship.)
       I argued that Reagan could have prevented massive deficits by either containing his military buildup or containing his tax cut. You write, “The flaw in your argument is your assumption that a smaller tax cut would have had no effect on slowing economic growth, or that a scaled-back defense buildup would have been just as effective in taking the Soviets to the edge of bankruptcy.” You go on, “While Reagan said during the 1980 campaign that he wanted a balanced budget, he made it clear at the outset of his administration that he was not willing to do it at the expense of his tax program or his defense program.”
       Dinesh, you keep wanting to have it all ways. Either Reagan was not telling us the truth in 1980 when he said we could have tax cuts, a defense buildup, and a balanced budget, or he got it wrong. He either meant what he said or he didn’t. He either really thought that he could balance the budget by cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse,” or he just made that up for electoral purposes. I’d think it better from your point of view to admit he was wrong than to claim he was lying. (Me, I think he believed it.) And I would assert–and you, as a conservative, should agree–that the Soviet Union was slipping into bankruptcy because of its system and not because of the extra billions we threw into a defense buildup that became, almost arbitrarily, even bigger than the one Reagan had in mind in 1980. Indeed, the best case from your point of view is that Reagan strengthened the Western alliance, especially during the Euromissile fight, and that this, more than the money, is what helped defeat the Soviet Union. You don’t want to argue–do you?–that the best way to solve problems is to throw money at them?
       Your personal attacks on Clinton would not be surprising but for your persistent assault on those who take issue with you on Reagan. Here again, you feel no obligation to hold to a consistent position. You condemn personal attacks on the leader you like, and engage in exactly the same sort of attacks on the leader you don’t like. It’s OK in 30-second ads, but it’s not an argument.
       Your response to my argument about the cultural changes of the 1980s and 1990s betrays another of your habits: To argue that even when things went wrong under Reagan and right under Clinton, Reagan deserves the credit. You did not dispute Bill Bennett’s numbers showing that so many of the cultural indicators went wrong in the 1980s and began going right in the 1990s. You want to argue that Reagan’s great speeches reverberated into the 1990s and are responsible for cultural renewal.
       In fact, Clinton, despite his personal flaws, has shown much more public concern than Reagan did for family stability and the need to rethink divorce, for the problems two-earner couples face in balancing their obligations to work and to their kids, and for the need to fix our public schools and to have them embody values of discipline and responsibility.
       Traditional values include a concern for both the family and the poor, for both personal responsibility and mutual assistance. They embody a concern for the broader community and not simply defenses of individual self-interest. We see that more clearly as a country now than we did in the 1980s, whether that’s Clinton’s doing or not. Abstract talk about family values is no substitute for concrete help to families. If Reagan cared so much about families with kids, why didn’t he push for child tax credits or family-leave laws? On these issues, Clinton is not simply “an opportunist with a surfboard,” as you assert so pleasantly. He has contributed to the wave. You want to credit Reagan for the economic boom and absolve him of any responsibility for cultural decline. Here again, you are being a fine publicist for the president you love, but you’re not making an argument.
       As I said at the beginning, I never hated Ronald Reagan. I admired his gifts as a political leader. I thought he was right about the nature of the Soviet Union. I respected him during the Euromissile fight, which I watched from Europe. He understood Gorbachev better and earlier than most. And Democrats were foolish to let him have so much running room on values such as “family, work, and neighborhood.”
       If you wanted to make a plausible revisionist case that Reagan was smarter than his opponents said he was and principled in certain important respects, you’d get no argument from me. But you can’t stop there. And you don’t want to take into account those areas–race relations, inequality, cultural and social problems, our fiscal condition–where the country was decidedly not better off eight years after Reagan took office.
       And what of Clinton? Because I’m not in the business of deifying political leaders, I don’t have to pretend that everything good that’s happening is Clinton’s doing. Nor do I propose to whitewash the problems of his administration (notably in the area of campaign money). He lost some opportunities to change the political debate, and he lost some big fights–health care especially. (And he didn’t have to sign that welfare bill or agree to the whole package of tax cuts the Republicans set before him.) But he did put us on a more rational fiscal path, at considerable political cost. He did move some important issues–health care, child care, education, and the need to help workers through a promising but difficult transitional period–to the center of the national debate.
       Most importantly, Clinton has forced many of Ronald Reagan’s own partisans to recognize the limits of the Reaganite ideology. Reagan said that government isn’t the solution, government is the problem. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in September, William Kristol and David Brooks–as staunch in their support for Reagan as you are–wrote that “an American political movement’s highest goal can’t be protecting citizens from their own government. Indeed, in recent years some conservatives’ sensible contempt for the nanny state has at times spilled over into a foolish, and politically suicidal, contempt for the American state. … How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?”
       I rest my case.