Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Oh What A Circus Since its pretty far outside the usual purview of this blog, I have not commented so far on the death of Ronald Reagan. Frequent readers of this blog will be unsurprised to learn that I am among those who think that Reagan did far more harm than good during his eight years as president. I will not rehash his record here; that has already been done by people far more able than me. Let me just remind you of his comment on evolution, made during the 1980 presidential campaign:

Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science - that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.

At the time this was taken to be a reference to punctuated equilibrium, which enjoyed a spate of publicity in 1980. Suffice it to say, Reagan's interpretation of “punk eek” is debatable.

Still, it's hard not to be a little taken aback be the ridiculous hero worship shown by many conservatives since Reagan's death. Conservatives may hate government (more precisely, they may hate government when it spends money in ways that doesn't benefit them directly), but they love their politicians. I'm reminded of the song “Oh What A Circus” from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Evita:

Oh what a circus, oh what a show
Argentina has gone to town
Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron
We've all gone crazy
Mourning all day and mourning all night
Falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right

Oh what an exit, that's how to go
When they're ringing your curtain down
Demand to be buried like Eva Peron
It's quite a sunset
And good for the country in a roundabout way
We've made the front page of all the world's papers today

But who is this Santa Evita?
Why all this howling, hysterical sorrow?
What kind of goddess has lived among us?
How will we ever get by without her?

She had her moments, she had some style
The best show in town was the crowd
Outside the Casa Rosada crying, "Eva Peron"
But that's all gone now
As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears
We're all gonna see and how, she did nothing for years

Obviously, the song is about Eva Peron. But most of the sentiments apply with equal strength to Reagan.

Over at Slate, you can find this debate (from 1997) between Dinesh D'Souza and E.J. Dionne about Reagan's legacy. D'Souza is the author of a book called Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. The mere fact that he could devise a title so simpering and pathetic tells you all you need to know about him. In my completely unbiased opinion, Dionne mops the floor with him. What particularly struck me about the debate was that while D'Souza never got beyond the level of cheap slogans and simplistic hagiography, Dionne had the nerve to talk specifics. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here's one brief exchange:

First, D'Souza:

On the tax-reform bill of 1986: I didn't address this issue earlier because I didn't think your point here was especially strong. The Reagan administration introduced the bill shortly after Treasury Secretary Donald Regan informed Reagan that a review of tax returns had showed that many major corporations had taken advantage of tax loopholes to pay no taxes at all. Both men agreed it was wrong and that further reform of the Internal Revenue Code was required.

At the time, most pundits felt that after the landmark tax changes of 1981, another major effort at tax reform was never going to succeed. But Reagan knew that some Democrats, such as Bill Bradley and Dan Rostenkowski, supported a restructuring of the tax code. The Reagan administration negotiated a compromise: Republicans would agree to close loopholes if Democrats would agree to lower tax rates. And the top marginal rate, which was 70 percent when Reagan came to office and had been lowered to 50 percent in 1981, was further reduced to 28 percent.

Here's Dionne's reply:

Dinesh, I'm sorry, but you're just wrong about Reagan taking a strong leadership role on tax reform. You credit Reagan for negotiating a compromise. “Republicans would agree to close loopholes if Democrats would agree to lower tax rates.” That wasn't Reagan's idea. It's what Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Dick Gephardt suggested. And the pressure for tax reform came when outside groups exposed the impact of Reagan's own tax program.

Don't believe me on this. In Showdown at Gucci Gulch, their definitive and widely praised account of the battle for tax reform, Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray (both, at the time, of the Wall Street Journal) note that Bradley began pushing for tax reform in 1981. They also note that it was a report by Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice that set off the battle. McIntyre was (and remains) a sharp critic of the original Reagan tax program. In October 1984, he issued a report finding that 128 of 250 large and profitable companies “paid no federal income taxes in at least one year between 1981 and 1983.” Seventeen of the companies paid no taxes whatsoever in all three years.

Yes, Reagan, shrewd politician that he was, responded to the pressure. He called for reform in his State of the Union address in January of 1984, but immediately undercut his own rhetoric. As Birnbaum and Murray note, “those watching the president might have been convinced by the president's sincerity, had it not been for the very next line” of his speech. Reagan said, “I have asked that specific recommendations, consistent with these objectives, be presented to me by December 1984.” They further note: “The presidential election was in November, and the president's promise seemed no more than a cynical ploy to deflect the issue until the election had passed. ... Tax reform seemed no more than a joke.” Even when the president actually proposed reform in his 1985 State of the Union address, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal the very next day backing away from corporate tax increases that were part of his own plan. Birnbaum and Murray wrote: “The president seemed to misunderstand the very heart of the 'excellent reform plan' he had praised the night before.”

I don't want to take away from the fact that Reagan eventually signed the law or that some important people in his administration did good work on tax reform. I dwell on this to underscore the fact that you seem less interested in the history of what actually happened in the Reagan years than in canonizing your man. The tax-reform battle underscores many of his weaknesses, even if he did end up supporting what his advisers, in cooperation with Bradley and Gephardt, came up with.