Monday, January 21, 2008
Personal Asides: McCains South Carolina Win and Lingering Conservative Dissent that Hes No Reagan. .The Bill Clinton-Obama Imbroglio is a Risk for Hillary that Can Only be Rectified One Way.
With John McCains victory in South Carolina, the prospect of his becoming the Republican nominee has struck a sour note with some die-hard conservatives who lament he is not another Reagan. Of course he isnt. Nor was Reagan either in the way these ideologues believe.
Some conservative Republicans drive me nuts when they decide adversely what kind of president John McCain or Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney might bewith various glum pronouncements that this one or that one wont be another Reagan. Thats because they are so cocksure they knowwhen in all U.S. history there was only one president who remained at all close to his campaign ideologyone presidentand that wasnt Ronald Reagan but Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge granted tax relief for the rich because he understood they would use lower taxes to invest more. He was right. When Mississippi was engulfed in the worst flood in history (topped only by Katrina), Coolidge refused to send federal aid because he felt it ws the states job to save itself not the federal governments.
Next to Coolidge, Reagan was malleable in ideological terms. Mythmaking assures us he was not but he was. The bargaining he learned as chief negotiator for the screen actors guild, playing poker with the likes of shrewd Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner.
As one who was privileged to spend a one-on-one with the man who was to become the 40th president in 1979 in a room at the OHare Hilton where he consumed a lean steak sandwich before boarding a plane back to his beloved California, less than a year before his election, I was charmed to see that his ideology was crystal clear. He had four fixed points: (1) Communism had to be defeated--not accommodated through détente as Nixon and Ford had sought (2) the federal government was too big and cost too much (3) abortion, he had decided after some wavering, was wrong and should be steadfastly opposed by government which had the obligation to defend the most defenseless of us, the unborn coupled with almost a Puritan viewastounding from an ex-Hollywood actor-- which severely criticized the culture and (4) the economy needed fewer regulations and more tax cuts. The simplicity of his vision entranced me. Before him, I had been accustomed to politicians playing a slightly different song to every audience with enough elastic to justify their defense of ambiguity when challenged. Not Reagan.
But all the same I didnt want to be impolite with my guest about his record in Californiabecause I was indebted to his campaign manager for president with the meeting and the job of seeing he got on his plane without delay for LAX. So I listened and questioned gently. Yes he took a hard-line against anti-Vietnam protesters on campuses in his statea harbinger (I hoped) of a tough foreign policy line (but who could be sure?). On abortion, he had signed the most liberalized abortion law in the country because he was mis-led by his father-in-law Royal Davis, a society physician from Lake Forest, IL On the size of state government, yes, after inheriting a sizable deficit from Pat Brown, he imposed a hiring freeze on state employees and cut the budgets of state agencies 10% across the board and dropped hundreds of thousands of less needy on welfare. On cultural issues, yes, he vetoed bills to decriminalize possession of marijuana and to establish bilingual education. However the analyst in me sought out possible contradictions. There were some. .
Item: When the fiscal health of the state returned, he created a handful of state antipollution agencies. Item: while railing against the welfare mentality he had increased benefits for those meeting new eligibility requirements (admittedly the very poor). Item: he won an income tax hike from the legislature which he claimed was essential to balancing the budget. Item: he granted conjugal visitation to state prison inmates (a very progressive step in the 1970s but anathema to the law-and-order crowd). Item: he actively campaigned against a state proposition that would have barred homosexual teachers from public schools (which caused conservatives like Richard Viguerie, a frequent critic, to say his conservatism was illusory).
So while conservatives hoped for the best from him, there was still a faint unease. Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL), in fact, who had been his champion in 1976 against Jerry Ford entered the 1980 presidential sweepstakes against himprincipally because he proposed to run in `76 with liberal Republican Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, inveighing that Reagan was not as conservative as he sounded.
As the world now knows, as president he achieved much of his agenda. Always shaky on details and prone to avoid as much hands-on as he could, Reagan bewildered me when I questioned him on the details of California state government. Item: There was a hidden open pipeline for federal aid to the states in Washington that was discovered for Illinois Governor Dick Ogilvie by his Washington rep, Tom Corcoran (no relation to the legendary lobbyist of the same name) and Reagans Washington rep. named Tom Joe. Siphoning a legendary amount of federal dough to the states enabled some of the bills to be paiduntil the feds closed the pipeline. A serious study was written about that pipeline by a conservative think tank (AEI). But when I asked if he knew the story, Reagan clearly did not. Norand this was amazing to mehad he ever heard of Tom Joe. I was stunned that he hadnt and have wondered since then who had made it work if Reagan didnt know about it. Well never know.
When I visited with him, Ronald Reagan was not a supply-sider, yet. He was an old-fashioned enemy of deficit spending and felt that the first thing to do was to cut government spending rather than gemerate tax cuts. But later in 1979 Jack Kemp (to his great credit) sold the concept of supply-side to himand the idea of tax cuts to stimulate the economy via the Laffer Curve found an apt disciple in Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was not infallible. After he defeated George Bush in the primaries and Bush cashed in his chips, Bush expected that he would be named vice president because that was the logical course to win a united Republican party. But Reagan had the feeling that Bush was a very weak man. Therefore he approached former president Jerry Ford and suggested that Ford run with him as vice president. Ford very nearly did so. It would have been a disaster and in the nick of time Reagan perceived this and torpedoed the idea, picking Bush. He loved statistics to pepper his speeches but would not go to primary sources. Hed rip out clippings from Human Events and other right-wing newspapers and add them to his talks. Sometimes the statistics were okay, sometimes not. He drove his researchers crazy with this habit. He announced to an audience one day how terrible it was that Vietnam veterans werent included in the GI Bill. They were. He said natural foliage produced more environmental hazards than factory pollution: wrong again.
But despite these human elements, as president, Reagan showed he was willing to endure severe unpopularity. He hunkered down as Paul Volcker of the Fed (whom Jimmy Carter had initially appointed and he re-appointed) wrung inflation out of the economy which stood at more than 13% to 2% before setting in at the 4-5% range, creating at the outset the worst recession since the Depression. The economy came roaring back in November, 1982 in an economic expansion that was the longest in peacetime since World War II. He courageously adopted supply side economics which spurred the economy even though deficits rose. He was smart enough to see that the deficits were a blessing; they scared the Congress so much, the big-spenders feared to continue their profligate ways lest the economy tank.
And his optimistic reliance on the instinct he picked up in economics 101 at Eureka college so long ago won the day. Income tax rates were lowed, the top-rate from 70% to 28% in seven years. He was forced to renege a bit in the middle of his first term and hike taxes slightly in order to get his budget approved by Congress. In fact, during the Reagan years a record 20 million new jobs were created or five jobs for every minute he was in office. By the time he retired, 118 million Americans were employedmore than any other time in U.S. history.
But in order to build up the military, his budgets, always theoretically balanced were as a practical matter unbalanced. His expanded defense spending coupled with the Star Wars proposal caused the Soviet to back away and ultimately collapse of its own weight, Gorbachev announcing in December, 1988 on a visit to the U.S. that he was unilaterally cutting the military and withdrawing from eastern Europe.
This much Reagan left unfinishedand he regretted it: a balanced budget. Some supply-siders said deficits didnt matterbut they did to Reagan and he hated them. He repeatedly called for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget but the national debt passed a trillion dollars for the first time in history in October, 1981 and doubled before he left office. The annual interest on the debt hit more than $150 billion to become the third largest item in the budget next to entitlements and defense. In 1982 the annual deficit rose beyond $100 billion for the first time in history and in three of the next four years exceeded $200 billion. His Supreme Court appointments were only so-so. Sandra Day OConnor was an evasive centrist who upheld Roe v. Wade; Antonin Scalia was great and a superb addition to the Court; Anthony Kennedy was a disappointment but recently has given conservatives some hope on the abortion issue.
I give this rather even-handed assessment of Reagan notwithstanding his role as one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century. But it is still a matter of some wonder to meand to otherson how he accomplished so much with an admittedly shaky, very shaky, command of detail and a proclivity not to be hands-on. Was his broad vision enough or did he have an extraordinarily good staff? That is still the unanswered question where Ronald Reagan is concerned. But there is no doubt that he was one of the most accomplished-filled presidents of the century.
Yet the initial doubts that existed about Reagan, even from some conservatives, should be a reminder to those who so assuredly insist that a John McCain will not be a Reagan, a Mitt Romney wont be either or a Mike Huckabee. Of course they arent. How could they be? These men are all extraordinarily well qualifiedMcCain because of his war hero status and his prescience and courage to fight for victory in Iraq which has been justified by the successful surge Romney because he is undeniably expert in a whole panoply of tests, private sector as well as public, Huckabee because he did an almost superhuman thing: rise from an asterisk to a national contender with very little money or support from the media.
In summary, I am still for Romney first of all but have the clear feeling that McCain will get it in which case I would hope the ticket would be McCain-Romney as the strongest that could be devised. I would imagine Fred Thompson will be retiring from the field, with his support such as it is going largely to Romney.
Ron Paul placed second to Romney in Nevadabut the big mystery to me is what Ron Paul has done with the money he has raised. I would have imagined he could have used it to start an advertising program that would lift him somewhat. Perhaps the Ron Paul readers can enlighten us. I am sure he will be running as a Libertarian candidate while at the same time seeking reelection to the House where he can use his tenure to campaign for term limits.
On the Democratic side I am still of the opinion that the nominee will be Barack Obama. Your comments?
Bill Clinton vs. Obama.
The increasing bitterness between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton involves a risk for Hillary Clinton. If she gets the nomination and Obama continues with his bitterness, a sizable majority of the blacks could stay home rather than vote for her. Understand I still think Obamas going to get the nomination, but if Im wrong and she does, she has to absolutely has to convince Obama to run on her ticket as vice president. If she wins the nomination and doesnt pick Obama, the blacks will feel that for the first time in U.S. history when they had a chance to win the presidency, the Clintons blocked them. Given the role blacks play in the Democratic party, it would be fatal to allow that bitterness to fester. That doesnt mean that if Obama gets the nomination, Hillary would agree to run as his vice president. No way. But it does mean that Hillary better be sure that she names Obama as her vice president. Theres no way outelse the Democrats will go down in flames.