Sunday, June 3, 2012

There He Goes Again, and Again and Again

I'd put my copy of There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error into storage, partly because I hadn't realized it would come in handy later.  Compiled by Mark Green and Gail MacColl and published in 1983, it collected and corrected dozens of the Gipper's most significant falsehoods.  The age of Reagan is over -- or so I thought -- so There He Goes Again could safely be put aside.

But then, a few weeks ago, President Obama proudly asserted the Reagan Revolution as his heritage, and Reagan as a fellow centrist who couldn't have won the presidential nomination from today's Republican party.  The Right jeered -- one pundit asked "Where are the moderate Democrats?", thereby supporting Obama's, and Mike Huckabee's, and the Economist's (via) claim.  Obama's toadies jumped in line behind him, and stuff like the above cartoon began turning up on Facebook.  It was time, I realized, to dust off There He Goes Again.

I'd already noticed that a couple of minor details had been overlooked.  Take the notion that Reagan "was too reasonable," because he raised taxes, enacted tariffs to protect American industries, supported environmental protection, and as Obama put it, "understood repeatedly that when the deficit started to get out of control, that for him to make a deal he would have to propose both spending cuts and tax increases. Did it multiple times."  These were things Reagan did after he was in office.  He campaigned on a platform that rejected such measures. An apologist might argue that Obama did the same thing: he adjusted to political realities that hadn't been effective while he was running for office.  But that isn't true: Obama expressed his admiration for Reagan while he was campaigning, and the economy was already staggering before he was elected.  Obama had already supported Bush's TARP program, and defended it during the campaign.  He also spoke of the need for "reform" of Social Security, which he misrepresented as being in crisis.  While he did reverse himself on a public option for health insurance reform, and on support for labor, and some other matters, he was already obviously a politician of the Right before he took office.

Reagan, by contrast, was forced by political reality to move toward the left.  As with Obama, his devotees were ready to forget his lapses from small-government right-wing orthodoxy while he was governor of California, and his election was hailed by the Christian Right as their Vindication, the proof that Yes They Could.  That was because Reagan had a long history as a vicious far-right demagogue, at odds with his own record as a working politician, but true believers look to what their leader says, not what he does.

[P.S. The difference between them could be summed up this way: Reagan campaigned as a right-wing extremist, but had to govern as a relative moderate; Obama campaigned as a moderate, but governs as a right-wing extremist.  It should also be remembered that polls showed that people voted for Reagan because they liked him; they opposed his policies and hoped he wouldn't carry them out.]

Social Security is a good example of this.  I'll take as given that the Reagan quotation in the above cartoon is accurate, though a look at its historical context would probably be less flattering to Obama.  But a look at There He Goes Again shows that Reagan had campaigned against Social Security for decades; he had to moderate his rhetoric somewhat as a major-party nominee, but he continued to work against it.  In September of 1980, during the campaign, he told the New York Times, "I never suggesteded that Social Security should be voluntary."  Green and MacColl commented (page 87):
Not never.  Voluntary Social Security was a staple of Reagan's mashed potato circuit speeches of the '60s.  For example: "Social Security ought to be voluntary ... so those who can make better provision for themselves are allowed to do so" (Human Events, Nov. 1966).  Or, "Don't exchange freedom for the soup kitchen of compulsory insurance" (New York Times, 1/17/76).
In a radio address a year later (September 24, 1981), President Reagan declared: "There has been a great deal of misinformation and for that matter pure demagoguery on the subject of Social Security ..."
The misinformation is on the subject of just how much the President wants to cut.  He has acted to eliminate Social Security benefits for students who are children of deceased and disabled workers; proposed cutting the minimum benefit for Social Security recipients; and allowed his Health and Human Services Secretary to propose cutting benefits at 62 years of age -- a proposal rejected by the Senate, 95-0 [pp. 87-88].
In the long run, Reagan got his way.  There are calls to raise the retirement age and cut benefits, from President Obama's Catfood Commission for example.  (The Commission was unable to agree on a report, but the two chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, issued their own recommendations, which were widely misrepresented as speaking for the Commission as a whole, though it rejected them.)

But back to the first Reagan.
During the 1982 election campaigns, the Republican TV advertisement showed a white-haired mailman delivering July's Social Security Check, which contained an automatic cost-of-living increase in benefits.  "President Reagan kept his promise to the American people," the ad proclaimed.

In fact, Reagan opposed the increase in Congress, which passed it anyway.  Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) chairman of the House Committee on Aging, said that for Reagan to claim credit for the increase "lowers the art of deception to depths not explored since the Nixon Administration" (New York Times, 7/7/82) [p. 89].
As you can see, Obama learned to prevaricate from a master.