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Obama, Clinton and the Reagan Flap: The Vision Thing Again

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With the great Obama "praises" Reagan flap continuing apace, it is fortunate that the lead paragraph of Eric Jong's Friday rant (Barack Hearts Ronnie: An Old New Song) includes a link to video of what Barack actually said (Obama: Reagan Changed Direction of Country in Way Bill Clinton Didn't). The disparity between what Obama said and what Jong heard is striking. Jong and Paul Krugman (Debunking the Reagan Myth) and Hale "Bonddad" Stewart (Ronald Reagan: Fiscal Disaster) remind us of what a sorry president Reagan was and of all the damage his administration did. But what exactly do these facts have to do with what Obama said? Obama reminds us that Reagan brought about significant change--changes like the one's Jong laments: lives ruined, an economy bankrupt, wealth redistributed toward greater concentration. If Jong or Krugman or Stewart heard in these remarks an implication that Obama finds these changes, changes for the better, their ears maybe attuned to some frequencies inaudible to mine. Maybe I'm just not picking up the Hillary Clinton talking points channel. But I'm not going to speculate about why they think--or want their readers to think--Obama's pointing out that Reagan changed the country makes him a fan of Reagan's policies.

I'm much more interested in the substantive question Obama poses: How did Reagan, whom Jong credits with being less intelligent than his horse, manage to do so much damage that lives after him? It seems to me that there were two aspects to Reagan's success at doing ill (and by Reagan's, I mean the success of the directors and scriptwriters of Reaganism, not simply of the aged actor they hired to read the lines and represent the brand). Reaganism succeeded in changing the way people talked about politics and in harnessing those linguistic changes to concrete and far-reaching (albeit profoundly damaging) public policy. Reagan was not out to fine tune the political system. Rather than setting achieving and holding office as an all encompassing goal, the Reagan administration was actually preoccupied with governing--or, I should say, misgoverning.

Take, for example, supply-side economics, which, boy-wonder budget director, David Stockman, early on confessed (or perhaps, boasted), was a sham. From the point of view of political discourse, supply-side economics represented systematically enhancing the position of the wealthy as an economic theory, complete with the aptly named "Laffer Curve," to perfect its transformation from self-interested policy to disinterested (pseudo) science. Like the myth of the "free market" itself, supply-side economic "theory," portrays the interest of one group as the interest of all. It also promises a little counter-intuitive something extra by claiming that lower taxation leads to higher government revenues, or, as Ronnie was wont to put it: "a rising tide raises all ships." Notice how efficiently even this bit of rhetorical treacle does its ideological work of supporting an economic "theory" with an illustration from physics. Supply-side economics (or "voodoo" as G. H. W. Bush famously called it) came to naught as cutting taxes led not to increased revenues but to a huge run up of the federal deficit, which Stewart illustrates in graphic detail. The fiscally favored, however, reaped the windfall of tax relief and the lead lining of a federal deficit that "starved the beast" and gave urgency to cutting social programs, which, of course, the Reaganauts wanted to do all along. Possibly Reagan (et. al.) thought the "Laffer Curve" was real--few things are as easy as convincing oneself that what is good for me is could for the world. But whether cynically manipulative or merely deluded (or some combination of each) the discursive arrangements of Reaganism--the way it talked--connected substantive public policies whose outcomes were consistent with the administration's aims to a larger rhetorical framework, a phantasmagoric vision, but a vision nonetheless.

When the results failed to justify the arguments made to support them, Reagan could still say that supply-side economics worked--because it worked for him--the tax codes it justified created pressure to shrink government and attack entitlements. The failure of supply-side economics did not touch this vision of a society administered by and for its elites. Reducing taxes on the wealthy did not produce the promised rise in revenues. But Reagan just said that was because federal spending was out of control, government was too big, the market was not sufficiently unregulated. That revenue did not follow the Laffer Curve played as a stutter, a technical glitch, in a program that was succeeding marvelously in its own terms.

A remarkable number of the stupid and damaging things Reagan did were done for clear reasons relating to a larger frame of desired results. Those results were both transformative (that is, I think what Obama was trying to get) and achievable. The core of Reagan's vision was to dismantle the New Deal by disabling the institutions that supported it. Much of his new Bad Deal was achieved because its various programs of taxation, deregulation and union busting were understood as parts of a greater whole, and the greater whole was comprehensible as a vision. Reagan's future may have looked like the robber barons' past, but it looked like something, it had a discernible shape that made its various programs and policies interpretable or misinterpretable as goal directed behavior. With the support of big money and the media conglomeration whose creation was part of the program, even this Bad Deal had more appeal to many voters in 1980 than the minutia of competing self-interests that Jimmy Carter had been able to present only as a "moral malaise."

Why did sentimental Reaganism survive the disastrous failures of supply-side economics, deregulation and imperial militarism? Partly because it succeeded in creating and entrenching the institutions that support it: the right wing think tanks and media operations funded by its well-heeled beneficiaries, the wealthy whose wealth it concentrated, the disarray of the Labor Movement it targeted, accelerated by the deregulated movement of capital out of domestic manufacture, but also because the opposition came to accept its discourse, its way of envisioning America, as given.

Krugman, while excoriating Obama for posing the question, nails the answer to why sentimental Reaganism persists today when he says: "that the great failure of the Clinton administration -- more important even than its failure to achieve health care reform, though the two failures were closely related -- was the fact that it didn't change the narrative, a fact demonstrated by the way Republicans are still claiming to be the next Ronald Reagan." In the terms I've been developing, this failure constitutes a failure of vision.

This is why I bristle and worry when Hillary Clinton chastises "dreamers' and touts her ability to get done what can be done. This way of thinking makes the achievable the substance of the vision itself. Rather than saying we must find a way to do what we want, it says we must want to do what we can.

Bill Clinton's signal and, I might add, stupendous, achievement was to take the spending issue away from the Republicans by balancing the budget, yet when G. W. Bush took office his first order of business was to burn the surplus and run up deficits that would potentially starve the beast well beyond Reagan's dreams--starve it once and for all to death. How was he able to do this? Supply-side economics. A complete rerun of Reagan's rhetoric: putting money in the hands of the people through massive tax cuts for the most wealthy would stimulate the economy and increase rather than decrease government revenues. The question that Obama usefully raises and Jong's, Stewart's and Krugman's responses obscure is how is it that such a weak sales pitch was able to sell the same bridge twice? The answer, I suspect, lies in the fact that although Reagan's programs have produced deleterious results, no coherent competing vision has captured the imagination. I take Obama's point about Reagan's having been a transformative president to refer to Reagan's having subordinated his policies to a fairly comprehensive idea of what sort of country he wanted--that vision is, from my point of view, and I hope from Obama's, dystopic and illusory, but it is a vision, and the salient point Obama makes about it is that Reagan (whether by luck or skill) seized a moment when the country was prepared to listen.

We have come a good distance since 1988. The economy is bad, the international situation is threatening, we can remember much better times under Bill Clinton, and we've had seven years of a president so spectacularly venal and incompetent as to restrict all thought of the future to a simple yearning for the day when he leaves office. We may be once again at a moment when a transformative vision might be heard. So far, however, our candidates have not provided it. Obama seems to grasp the need for a coherent counter vision, a comprehensive picture of the progressive future, but he has not begun to articulate one. Hillary Clinton's demonstrated progressive proclivities are in most areas as strong or stronger than any he has demonstrated, but for the moment, she has cast her lot with the doctrines of the DLC, which make winning and holding office paramount. We might recall here that the Reagan transformation was the culmination of a movement that began with Barry Goldwater and consistently favored promulgating its misguided vision over merely holding office. The argument that one can achieve nothing without winning is valid. But, after allowing President Bush two terms in office, during which he has been permitted to grievously damage the Constitution and the rule of law, one has to ask whether winning by appropriating the Reagan vision has achieved much and why the strategy of winning produced two consecutive losses against a candidate as manifestly weak as G. W. Bush. The celerity with which G. W. Bush destroyed the gains of the Clinton years ought to give us pause. No one (on my side of things) wants to let the Republicans win, but 2004 should have shown us that one thing worse than compromising conviction to win is compromising conviction to win and losing anyway.

I want to live in an America in which wealth is equitably distributed, organized labor is supported, imperialism is renounced and public works are proudly and frankly undertaken because Americans care about each other. I want to live in an America in which the rule of law is respected and the environment is treated as a trust to be preserved not a possession to be exploited. I want to live in an America that enlists me in a national effort to fix global warming and end petroleum dependence. I want an America that feels and acts connected to the world and not as an exception to it. I want a Democratic nominee who can and will show people a vision of that country and then justify the programs she or he proposes as the means to that good end. I want my morning in America, and Idon't care which candidate gives it to me. It's time for the good guys to stop imitating Ronald Reagan and start replacing him.