Lou "Boom Boom" Cannon, "Obama's Reagan Transformation?" January 27
WITH little to go on beyond a few excerpts and the fact that their combined throw weight is fast approaching that of James Mitchner (plus the fact that he's now enlisted his son in the effort), we've pretty much restricted ourself to the occasional baseless insinuation about Lou Cannon's Reagan canon, now up to volume five and, one imagines, Young Ronald's first day of school, or perhaps the cutting of his second molars or first public park massacre. Really, I happen to view Ronald Reagan as the edge where McCarthyism, modern PR flackery, and the bombing of Dresden meet, and I'm not exactly taciturn, and I have no idea how I'd fill five volumes about the man without a lot of repetition. And cussing.
Sure, my opposition is ideological and, as I've admitted, might not differ qualitatively from age-group Gipper-worship nerds of the David Brooks class. I was, thankfully, spared the direct experience of that sort of Hollywood which carved Reagan into a demi-star. My first encounter with him was when he took over Death Valley Days from The Ol' Prospector, or whomever, though what I remember most about the show was 20 Mule Team Borax, the sponsor whose product, as a hand cleanser, I adored (Lava, too; I just liked washing with grit, I guess). Next thing I knew he was Governor of California, somehow, and a Nazi. Then he spent a time as a political punchline, then out of the blue he bought a microphone, stole a briefing book, and was elected President. I'm not sure I've had another experience that compares. Maybe the time my sister knocked me unconscious with an old wood-shafted driver she was swinging, but that didn't last nearly as long or hurt as much.
My young life had seen an Oval Office occupied by The Allied Commander in Europe, Mr. Camelot, the Crafty Senate Fixer, a Former Vice-President and Perpetual Paranoid, then the Accidental Accident Not Waiting To Happen, and Jimmy Who?, the last two the product of interesting times, as the Chinese would say. For sure, Nixon had always seemed to me to be the President of Somewhere Else, not anywhere where I lived, but at least one understood the political dynamic that had put him there. If Carter came from nowhere and was already a primary lock before anyone noticed, well, at least he'd accomplished it with a sort of new understanding of the process, like he'd gotten the Democratic nomination by hiking the ball directly to the running back, which you had to respect. Reagan, on the other hand, was like looking up and seeing Cap'n Bob from the old morning Popeye cartoon show of your youth taking the Oath. Not to mention that he'd run on a platform of These Kids Today! With the Hair and the Music an' the Marihuana! Let's Shoot 'Em! Reagan wasn't a fluke, or an aberration; he was New Coke™, he was Pepsi Clear™, he was Harley Davidson™ cookware. He was the cynical manipulation of Product Placement by a coterie of Kennedy-obsessed wingnuts who'd realized that Name Recognition, properly packaged, could be hurled onto peasant houses below with a reasonable expectation of success, provided you defined "success" in a certain way.
The Reagan hagiography business has, among other things, tended to suggest that he rode into the White House having convinced the American people that his time-honored ideals, recently fallen into disrepute through fashionable Sixties commie-narco-nihilism, were in fact the magic elixir of American Greatness. Or it does so when it isn't necessary to tell the opposite story (a common feature of St. Ronnie tales is their reversibility). This is where we find Cannon:
the presidential exemplar that may be most useful to President Obama as he seeks to jump start the economy is a Republican whose single-mindedness in his first months in office enabled him to gain the confidence of the American people and approval of his proposals from a Congress he did not control.
That president is Ronald Reagan, whose long-term goals were different from Mr. Obama’s but who was also willing to put pet projects on the back burner in the cause of economic recovery. In 1980, Reagan campaigned against President Jimmy Carter on a mix of issues, while giving priority, as Mr. Obama did in 2008, to a sagging national economy. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked over and over again.
Wage and Price Controls. The end of the Gold Standard. Two Oil Embargoes. WIN buttons. Stagflation. The 70s were not exactly a decade humming along economically until Jimmy Carter fucked it up. That Reagan "ran against a sagging national economy" is hardly surprising (the gross understatement of "sagging" is curious, the dog that hiccuped instead of barking, designed to suggest that the whole thing was just a matter of Carter's lazy posture); that he "ran on a mix of issues" is the pop historian's version of giving every kid who enters the race a trophy.
And the real irony here is that in the annals of US Presidential politics Reagan is the shining example of a Single Issue candidate who persevered long enough to gain the nomination without ever having been relegated to a crackpot third party. Of course this is due in large measure to the fact that the major party he already belonged to was now a den of cranks. Reagan's appeal for sixteen years had been The National Debt, aka, the evil and metaphysical ineptitude of a strong central government. That this idee fixe attracted a range of political positions on everything from Space Weapons to school dress codes, some intellectually contradictory, shamelessly pandering, or simply incoherent, isn't an accomplishment; it's a description of sentience. Whoever was elected in 1980 was going to have as his first order of business The Economy, which had been the first order of business at least since the Fall of Saigon.
And furthermore, he was going to operate in a climate where The Fed was squeezing the money supply dry until inflation ended, come hell or high water. That was the decision (finally) reached during a moderate Democratic administration, however warming to the cockles of whatever's in the place of the heart of an incoming Republican one, was The Gipper's good fortune. The government threw people out of work to break the back of double-digit inflation. The Reagan administration knocked itself out trying to claim credit for any positive effect. (One of my favorite Reagan era anecdotes involves then-Treasury secretary Don Regan stating, in Spring, 1981, that the market upturn was the result of anticipation of Reagan's Miracle Tax Cuts; he then shut up about it for the following 19 months, for some reason.)
As for "not controlling Congress", it depends here on describing the remaining Dixiecrats in Congress as belonging to the party opposite Reagan's. We think no more need be said.
And look, if there's some lesson to be learned from the single-minded front of the early days of Reagan, we hope it's not taken. Because that lesson is how easy it is to appear competent with the Press as your courtesan. Indeed, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" would become a mantra, in large part because it was rarely examined, just as "Stay the course" would subsequently become an exercise in mass hypnosis. Reagan's tax cutting was disastrous (as he himself would be forced to tacitly admit; compare the Bush II gang, having learned the Lessons of Vietnam, which simply refused to admit anything of the sort. We Win!). His military spending was incontinent, big-ticket Star Wars nonsense. Naturally this meant that in the end he'd be hailed as Our Economic Savior for modest economic growth, the worst jobs-creation record since WWII, two recessions, the massively accelerated wage stratification, and the Olly Olly Oxen Free regulatory climate that already had led to the looting of the Savings and Loan industry, not to mention, of course, the near quadrupling of that National Debt he'd been so obsessive about. If only for balance's sake was he lauded for rebuilding a military chockablock with AWACs and B1s and aircraft carriers in search of a mission, one capable of launching the greatest Armada since Normandy at Grenada while simultaneously training groups of armed thugs to disrupt democratically-elected Central American governments we didn't like, culminating in the glorious defeat of The Soviet Union by bank overdraft. It's odd that this latter method wasn't mentioned at the time, nor has it ever been attempted or even suggested since, but there you are.
No, Mr. President; though it may be tempting to cruise through your administration getting blowjobs from the Press and posing for stamps, and while it might mean that Josh Marshall is still laboring over you twenty-five years after The Final Stiffy, we like to think you were elected to do the opposite. And if Lou's right, and you are the one Democrat who "understands the nature of Reagan's appeal", we hope this just means you're the one least likely to try to duplicate it, if you care about the rest of us.