Wednesday, February 4, 2004

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I love the eighties... strikes back!

Looking for more information on whether Bush is Reagan redux on foreign policy?

On foreign economic policy, Virginia Postrel ably makes the case that the current outsourcing phenomenon is a replay of the fears of "Japan, Inc." from the eighties. The Morgan Stanley quote is courtesy of this joint effort by Stephen Roach and Richard Berner (link via Brad DeLong). Stephen Roach takes the opposite position on outsourcing.

Reagan's forced reversal on taxes is covered in this Bruce Bartlett essay from last October. For a blow-by-blow description of Reagan's fiscal policy, the obvious source is David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics.

The Mary Matalin quote is courtesy of Chris Sullentrop's Slate article on Bush's campaign reelection strategy.

On Reagan's policies towards the Soviet Union, an accessible primer is Strobe Talbott's The Master of the Game, which is simultaneously a biography of Paul Nitze and a discussion of Reagan's attitudes towards arms control. It's also worth a re-read to see how Richard Perle reacts to Reagan responding to Gorbachev. And to understand the strains that existed within NATO in the early eighties due to Reagan's perceived belligerency, I'll shamelessly recommend Chapter Three, pages 80-88 of The Sanctions Paradox, authored by yours truly. [Wouldn't George Shultz's Turmoil and Triumph work as well?--ed. Er, yes, but that book is much too long for your busy TNR Online reader.]

On whether it is possible to create a democracy in Iraq: I argued pre-invasion that there were reasons to be optimistic with regard to democratization. For a counterargument, see today's Los Angeles Times op-ed by George Downs and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita* (link via Kevin Drum). This post from a few weeks ago contains links to arguments by George Will, Ken Pollack, and Francis Fukuyama on the subject. Today's Chicago Tribune provides a story on the perils and promises of human rights in Iraq. To my knowledge, Michael Desch was first compared Iraq to Lebanon.

I say Bush is hoping to emulate Reagan; Jonathan Rauch says that Bush is actually emulating Reagan's childhood idol, FDR in a July 2003 essay from The National Journal.

posted by Dan on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM


Well, Dan, Nixon stunned allies and economic critics with his bold moves toward China, his wage and price controls and abandonment of Bretton Woods, several moves in winding down the Vietnam War and later Kissinger's Mideast diplomacy. Why isn't Bush Nixon redux?

The truth is that historical analogies are tricky things. For Bush administration supporters the most attractive part of Reagan's legacy is the Gipper's personal popularity and electoral success -- the legacy Bush's father threw away. They would like to see in Bush's Iraq policy and his spectacularly profligate fiscal policy counterparts to Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union and the Reagan deficits because these worked out well politically.

But just as Reagan's personality was different from Bush's -- contrast Reagan's unfailing grace to Bush's frequent boorishness -- the policies he followed were pursued in different circumstances. The decades long conflict with the Soviet Union was profoundly different than the threat now from terrorism; the deficits Reagan incurred with the 1981 tax cut mattered less then than the equal (or greater) deficits Bush is running up now that the baby boom generation is over 20 years closer to retirement. Even in the 1980s Congress repeatedly passed legislation -- tax increases -- aimed at reducing those deficits, legislation Reagan always signed even though he never admitted his role in creating the deficits to begin with. The contrast, on substance, is glaring.

The key thing for this White House, though, is reelection. The key to reelection is uniting and energizing the Republican base, and no Republican ever did that like Reagan. If I were George Bush right now I'd be encouraging flashbacks to the 80s too.

posted by: Zathras on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]


Didn't Regan cut government spending at one time?

If so, will Bush do it?

posted by: Jim Coomes on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Ronald Reagan's boyhood hero was FDR? Wasn't Reagan born in 1913 making him 20 years old when FDR was inaugerated? I distinctly remember Reagan referring to Clavin Coolidge as his boyhood idol, which makes more sense ideologically and chronologically. Although he did consider himself a Democrat at one time in his life, probably more due to the patriotic WWII Hollywood mentality than a love of big government.

The article comparing Bush to FDR is chilling. I am beginning to fear that at least on the size of government questions he is much more like FDR or Nixon than Reagan. That's not a compliment.

Jim Powell's new book "FDR's Folley" is an excellent indictment of on of America's worst presidents.

posted by: DSpears on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

JC, the book on Reagan as a budget cutter is that he had his OMB propose a very wide variety of cuts, some of which were enacted in 1981. The cuts did not extend to Pentagon spending at all, despite OMB Director Stockman's best efforts, and Reagan's efforts to curb entitlement spending also aborted early in his first term.

Thereafter cuts were regularly proposed in budgets submitted to Congress by Reagan's administration, and the proposals were almost always ignored. Reagan himself invested no time or effort in trying to enact them -- and in any case, with defense and entitlements off the table Reagan's proposed cuts exempted the vast majority of federal spending anyway. Reagan did call regularly for a line-item veto and a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

Bush's last budget proposes a number of cuts in programs that target Democratic constituencies and substantial increases in programs that target Republican constituencies. The net effect will be to increase spending, though not quite as quickly as spending has increased in Bush's first three years in office.

posted by: Zathras on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Reagan has the singular distinction of being the only president in the 20th century (or maybe ever) to actually shrink (not just reduce the rate of growth) discretionary non-defense spending.A modest achievement in the big picture, but a monumental achievement in the environment in which it was done.

I remember each year when Reagan sent his budget to the hill, Tip O'Neil and the Democrats would have a little farsical ceremony where they would declare the budget "dead on arrival". The Dems seemed to really enjoy themselves at this event.

Defense spending was increased because Reagan believed (rightly so) that National Defense was one of the few legitimate responsibilies of the Federal government. The Articles of Confederation were scrapped and the Constitution was written basically to deal with this one issue. It was the one area where the big spenders of the 1970's didn't spend enough money.

To me Bush resembles Nixon more than any other president: Very good on National Defense (especially compared to the alternative) but basically a pandering, do-anything-to-get-elected politician on domestic policy, with underlying political principles. A big government conservative. It would take all day to list the number of new government agencies and useless programs Nixon initiated. It's starting look that way for Bush.

For the last couple of years when I wasn't looking as closely I should have, I thought the Democrats were so angry at Bush because he was going to cut taxes and gut their favorite social engineering programs and shrink the size of their beloved government. In other words, for the same reasons they hated Reagan. What is actually going on is that he is stealing their thunder. If the Republicans are the party of big government, then what role is left for them? They are left with what you are seeing on the capaign trail right now: "Bush may think he's for big government but you can always trust us Democrats to spend more". I find it hilarious that the Democrats are demonizing the Medicare bill which is the biggest increase in entitlement spending in 40 years as "not nearly big enough".

I'm starting to believe that the Republicans are in need of an embarrassing defeat so that this latest "compasionate conservative" garbage can be jetisoned and the Goldwater/Reagan Republicans can re-take the party. If I thought for a second that the country would be safe with a Democrat as commander in chief I'd file a protest vote in Novemember. I probably just won't vote at all.

posted by: DSpears on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Dspears says:

"Reagan has the singular distinction of being the only president in the 20th century (or maybe ever) to actually shrink (not just reduce the rate of growth) discretionary non-defense spending."

This is not true. A quick check at the CBO website shows that DNDS grew in nominal terms under Reagan. If you look at the (correct) % of GDP numbers then yes it did fall but it also fell under Clinton.

In any case it's irrelevant. DNDS is a small part of the overall budget. And greater interest costs, due to large deficits increasing debt, more than made up for any 'savings' on DNDS.

posted by: GT on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

Actually, if you look at the data behind the LA Times op-ed by George Downs and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita it suggests that US interventions actually do help promote democracy. See here.

posted by: Michael Friedman on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

All respect to the importance of defense in America's early constitutional development, but what does this have to do with Reagan's defense budgets? Increases over the spending levels insisted on by the lopsided Democratic Congressional majorities of the 1970s were surely justified, but much Reagan-era spending (on programs like the white elephant B-1 bomber, the battleship restoration program, and surplus military bases) was simply wasted money. There at least Bush seems determined to follow in Reagan's footsteps.

posted by: Zathras on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

It would be more accurate to say that any spending cuts made during the 1990's were under Gingrich, not Clinton, since the latter faught every one of them tooth and nail (then claimed credit). But in any event like Reagan's budget cutting it was only temporary, politicians being what they are.

Whether Reagan should have closed a few bases or not spent money on this program or that program isn't a very relevant arguement 20 years later. What is relevant is that the military build-up did exactly what Reagan said it would do (and the exact opposite of what the moral equivalence crowd in Europe and America said it wouldn't do). The former Soviets will tell you what effect it had on them.

The point is not give a short lesson on the history of the Constitution, although that's a lesson that the vast majority of Americans are completely ignorant of. The point is that Reagan rightly saw that the military was vastly underfunded in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and he was going to fix that. The arguement by his opponents was that there were other more important priorities that the Federal Government should be spending it's money on instead. Reagan's arguement was that there is NO more important priority of the federal government than National Defense (hence it's place in the Constitution). He also would have made the arguement that most of what they wanted to spend the money on was outside of the scope of the Federal Government (again the the 10th Amendment to the Constitution) and should be devolved to the State governments or not done at all.

I'm sure any Democrat will agree with this statement: If Reagan had gotten everything he wanted at the time, we would have a much smaller, less powerful government, the military and national defense would be the single biggest line items in the Federal budget, taxes would be lower, and a Demcrat would tell you that we would be a 3rd world miltary dictatorship right now, where everybody was either a millionare or homeless. Of course a Goldwater/Reagan Republican or a Libertarian would tell you that we'd be in the best shape this country has ever been in.

But all of those ideas are vapor now.

posted by: DSpears on 02.04.04 at 10:18 AM [permalink]

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