1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Cowboy Politics

I was reading Andrew Sullivan's blog today (he's the first place I go when I blog up), and thinking again about his incomprehensible adoration for Reagan. Of course, it's anything but incomprehensible in terms of background as a life-long conservative, Reaganphililia is a shibboleth for him. But he, along with so many conservatives, is just so head-over-heels enamored with Reagan it's striking. I think that his man crush on Obama today is heavily correlated with his ability to read Reaganesque characteristics into him (thank Yahweh I can't).

Anyway, this left me thinking again about why Reagan is supposed to have been such a fabulous president, in contrast with, say, the elder Bush. I think there are three main legacies: the way turned the page on Carter, the way he took on the U.S.S.R., and the emphasis upon tax cuts and (hrumph) fiscal conservatism. But all three seem to be deeply flawed.

(1) First, his reversal of Carter -- both in style and substance -- was thorough-going. And I'm sure, after Carter's straight talk about the U.S. need to contract its consumption of resources, and recognize that its age of dominance might be coming to an end, that Reagan's cry of "Morning in America" was comforting, even arousing. But given our continued energy problems, and the way those energy problems continue to shape our conundrums in the Middle East, it's worth suggesting that Carter knew what he was talking about, and had the balls to say it. Sure, he might have over-reacted a bit (I think scientists were prematurely gloomy about the resource problem) but then again, in the long run, I think it's inarguable that he was right. In other words, "It's Morning in America" will ultimately prove to be rose-scented bullshit.

And the other thing I can't get over w/ regard to Carter, is the Iran Contra scandal. The scandal began because, before he was even elected many think Reagan and Co. went back-door to the Iranians to try and delay the hostage release until immediately after his inauguration, and to broker the deal (arms for Americans) that would get them released. The release of the hostages on inauguration day imply some kind of deal. At the very least, the evasion of Congressional appropriations this caused during Reagan's first term were a violent abrogation of the constitution -- one for which he should have been impeached. But his negotiations with the terrorists behind Carter's back were probably treasonous. I mean, this was an issue of national security, and Reagan was effectively working against the sitting president.

(2) As for Reagan's acceleration of the cold war against the U.S.S.R., many credit him with bankrupting the Soviet economy with his arms build up, and hastening their demise. So far so good. But it's worth asking (a) did he only accelerate the inevitable? and (b) how much more severe was the Soviet economic collapse than it had to be, and how much worse was the aftermath for its former republics? It's clear that the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was violent and involved an enormous, fraudulent transfer of wealth. Could there have been a softer landing? It's trivially obvious that the U.S. was initially completely unprepared to help out and figure out what shape our future engagement with Russia should be. How much more difficult for those within the former U.S.S.R who weren't ready? Putin's rise to power has largely been fueled by stoking Soviet nostalgia through comparison to the terrible conditions which followed. And while Putin has proven a strong enough hand to somewhat stabilize Russia , it's hard to say what might have happened if less stabilization would have been necessary, and what a less threatened, more democratic leader might mean for the U.S. economy and security today. Just saying.

(3) As for Reaganomics, I think that many more people would agree today, in the aftermath of the Bush presidency, that they don't seem to work well. Moreover, the Bush recipe (Tax Cuts + ballooning spending) was modeled explicitly on the Reagan years, and it's worth entertaining the possibility that, without Reagan's canonization, this wouldn't have gone over quite so well with the Republican majorities of the early Bush years. And, insofar as much of the increase in spending went to the military in both cases, it's important to ask how our foreign policy might look differently without extended periods of military build up. Would Clinton have gone to Somalia and Kosovo? If the military had been 2/3 the size it was at the beginning of Bush's term, would he have been able to go to Iraq after Afghanistan? Probably not.

In sum, I think there are two key problems with Reagan love. One can easily argue (as I just did) that Reagan, if a good cheerleader, was disastrous in terms of his policies -- though much of the pain wasn't felt immediately. But more importantly, by casting and recasting his legacy in such positive terms, intelligent conservatives fail to learn from his mistakes. That's why, I'd suggest, they were so enamored with Bush 43 initially. In style and in policy he stuck close to the Reagan model. And if they ended up less enchanted with him, it's worth noting that the things that eventually drove them away were essentially extensions of Reagan's policies. The only two exceptions I can think of are Bush's attempt at immigration reform, and the prescription drug plan. But those were small-bore issues compared with his cowboy foreign policy agenda and his Reaganite laissez-faire, tax-cutting economic approach.

Maybe it's bedtime for Bongo's legacy.

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