Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Bend It Like Reagan
Ronald Reagan and I never saw eye to eye on much of anything, not that he cared, but I have to get up on my hind legs and applaud him for being a great politician. The reason he was a great politician was that he didn’t let his principles get in the way of his governance.
He had principles, to be sure, and followed them far enough to move the country to the right during his eight years. But he was savvy enough to stay away from fights he couldn’t win and unembarrassed enough, when circumstances called for it, to change course 180 degrees and act as if nothing had happened.
Critics called him the Teflon president because scandal never stuck to him, but my view is that he was more deserving of the term because he was never held to account, even by his supporters, for failing to enthusiastically pursue his core beliefs. To this day they smile beatifically at the thought of the tax cuts he got through Congress in his first year, all the while experiencing total amnesia when it comes to the half-dozen or so (depending on how you count) tax increases he signed into law the other seven years.
As the first officially pro-life president, Reagan was wonderful at cooing sympathetically on the evils of abortion to religious and pro-life leaders. He was so good at it that they still haven’t noticed, thirty years later, that he made no serious attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade or that as governor of California, he signed one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws.
On labor matters, he stood tall and fired the striking air-traffic controllers. Of course that was a small union of government employees with ineffective leadership, calling a strike that would have inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. It was an easy target. Reagan never boldly took on the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers; he needed their members’ votes.
Nobody talked a better game about deficits and small government, but Reagan signed a succession of budgets that increased both the federal deficit and the size of government. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York appraised the decade of Reagan’s presidency as the time “We borrowed a trillion dollars from Japan and threw a party.”
Nor did President “Government is the Problem” attempt to roll back the New Deal. When it became obvious, early in his presidency, that Social Security was headed for trouble as the baby boomers got older, Reagan signed into law a bipartisan bill to protect it, largely through higher taxes.
I hope this recitation of the record isn’t construed as Reagan-bashing, because that’s not its intent. It’s meant as an appreciation. The Tea Party and the legacy of Gingrich Republicanism have made me see Reagan in a warmer and more sympathetic light. There is a great deal to be said for a politician who is willing to compromise his principles somewhat to achieve a result and who has the sense to stay an arm’s length away from nasty ideological battles that can’t possibly be won.
There are several pernicious myths that warp the American political dialogue, and one of the worst is the notion that we need more politicians of strong principle who will stand up unflinchingly for what they believe. God save us, please, from elected officials who feel their every belief has to be translated into law without compromise. Give us instead some politicians who can bend like Reagan. They’ll accomplish more, and a lucky few may even get airports named after them.