Sunday, October 26, 2003

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Some minor historical revisionism

Peter Wallison has an op-ed in today's New York Times exhorting George W. Bush to be like President Reagan (Wallison was Reagan’s counsel in 1986 and 1987). The key sections:

Early in his first term, Mr. Reagan faced very similar pressures: his economic program was not yet producing the promised results, and his foreign policy — in that case, his confrontational approach to the Soviet Union — was criticized by the Democrats and the press and opposed by most Europeans and their governments....

In February 1982, with public support slipping, Mr. Reagan wrote in his diary: "I'm convinced of the need to address the people on our budget and the economy. The press has done a job on us and the polls show its effect. The people are confused about [our] economic program. They've been told it has failed and it's just started."

With a midterm election less than a year away, Republicans in Congress were restive. The prevailing economic theory of the time was that deficits would cause high interest rates, prolonging the recession. Howard Baker, the Republican leader in the Senate, called Mr. Reagan's tax policies a "riverboat gamble." After meeting with Republican Congressional leaders on Feb. 23, Mr. Reagan wrote in his diary, "they are really antsy about the deficit and seem determined that we must retreat on our program — taxes and defense spending."

In retrospect, Ronald Reagan's stand on principle seems an easy choice, since he was re-elected in 1984 in a landslide. But in the dark days of 1982 it took unusual tough-mindedness. And while it is true that he was re-elected in part because Americans had begun to see the success of his economic policies, there is also no question that voters liked his attachment to principle in hard times. It was as rare then as it is now to find a politician who actually believed in something.

Three thoughts on this:

1) Wallison doesn't need to worry about Bush acting like Reagan on sticking to his principles. As I pointed out in August, stubborness is simultaneously Bush's greatest strength and greatest weakness as president.

2) Wallison also engages in a bit of revisionist myth-making. It's certainly true that Reagan stood firm on foreign policy issues. However, in the wake of deficit projections in 1982, Ronald Reagan signed the largest tax increase in history a year after enacting the largest tax cuts in history. In other words, Reagan didn't stick to his principles as much as Wallison alleges.

3) Wallsion's advice is of cold comfort to Bush. Reagan's low point came at the midway point of his first term. Two years later, in 1984, the economy had recovered to the point where Reagan was able to win 49 of 50 states. The point is, Reagan's trough came early enough in his presidency to ride out.

For Bush, the window for such a turnaround is shorter. The current election is only a year away. While the economy is growing, net job creation remains anemic at best. My hunch is that the economy will pick up steam, but that may be too late for it to be an asset to the Bush campaign.

The aftermath of a brilliant military victory in Iraq is proving messier than many thought, and the economy is still sluggish. At this point none of the Democratic contenders looks like a particularly formidable candidate against President Bush. However, winning primaries can often generate gravitas on its own.

Wallison wants everyone to think it's 1982 all over again. The problem is, it may be 1991 instead.

UPDATE: Drezner gets results from Bruce Bartlett!!

posted by Dan on 10.26.03 at 10:42 AM


This morning you have Chuck Hagel , Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sitting beside Jay Rockfeller (Democratic Minority Chairman, Senate Intelligence Committee) on Meet the Press and both are discussing (a) whether Intelligence was cooked by the Administration to justify a pre-determined decision to attack Iraq and (b) Congress's failure to ask harder questions of the Administration before supporting it (c) how the honeymoon period of the blank check from Congress is over

This morning we also hear of Paul Wolfowitz and US military commanders fleeing in their underwear from a Bagdad hotel as it is pounded by rockets
in an insurgency attack.

Meanwhile, Dean is running strong in the Democratic primaries with TV ads noting that other Democratic nominees are finally asking questions about Iraq that they should have asked a year ago,
--prior to their vote to support Bush.

posted by: Don Williams on 10.26.03 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Dan: in 1982, Ronald Reagan signed the largest tax increase in history ...

And, in fact, that tax increase is still the largest ever.

posted by: Cervantes on 10.26.03 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

I'm still bullish on Bush.

posted by: John T on 10.26.03 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

Oops. Correction: Richard Lugar is Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, not Chuck Hagel. Chuck Hagel is a member, however.

posted by: Don Williams on 10.26.03 at 10:42 AM [permalink]

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