Reagans Trajectory

Greg Sargent highlights a post by Brendan Nyhan about the myth that Reagan turned the American people against government and adds:

The key takeaway here is that public attitudes towards government are not fixed in stone, and if there’s one thing that can get folks to rethink their supposed anti-government bias, it’s actual cuts to government. Nyhan worries that Obama has internalized the “phony narrative of Reagan’s presidency,” and says this “is likely to lead him astray.” But I think it’s becoming clearer that Obama has not internalized this narrative.

Rather, as I noted below, it seems more and more obvious that Obama and Dems are placing a heavy bet on the very phenomenon Nyhan pinpoints here: People suddenly start to like government once officials start talking specifics about how to downsize it in the real world. Not even Saint Ronald Reagan could talk them out of this apostasy.

I think this is correct as far as it goes. Most people actually like government programs that benefit them and are usually hostile only to those they think benefit the “undeserving.” But there is no doubt in my mind that Reagan and his progeny have made anti-government sentiment in general a baseline value among a large number of Americans, which has led to an ongoing, incremental degradation of the relationship of people to their government. People may not want their government services cut in the abstract, but with every vote for a Republican or Democrat who rails against taxes, they make it that much more difficult to deliver them. And being unable to deliver adequate services leads more and more people to vote for people who promise to lower taxes and spending.

This “starve the beast” approach has always been to rail against government and force tax cuts — thus driving up debt. The cuts in programs are what follows. And they are quite successful at the first two elements. We know their anti-government rhetoric is nearly universal. It’s almost impossible to find someone who says “I think the government does a pretty good job” even though they may personally have positive dealings with it. It just isn’t socially acceptable. That’s a huge political advantage for those of both parties who are most concerned with weakening the safety net, deregulation and low taxes.

But this is an astonishing accomplishment:

Amid complaints about high taxes and calls for a smaller government, Americans paid their lowest level of taxes last year since Harry Truman’s presidency, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data found.

Some conservative political movements such as the “Tea Party” have criticized federal spending as being out of control. While spending is up, taxes have fallen to exceptionally low levels.

Federal, state and local income taxes consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century.

Despite that, the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, even in light of their great comeback from the recession, is considered a model of future bipartisan behavior. I’d call that a big win for the Reaganites.

As Greg notes, we don’t know how the administration and the Democrats in the congress will behave on “entitlements.” (So it’s probably a good idea to err on the side of caution and exert pressure wherever possible.) But I would just point out that the very argument Greg says the administration is putting forth is very, very close to the argument he used in the campaign to explain why Reagan was a transitional figure.

Greg writes this:

But it seems clear that Obama’s gestures in the direction of austerity are more about creating a larger vision, a blend of fiscal discipline and sensible government spending, that the public will ultimately judge as preferable to the all-government-is-bad GOP approach.

Here’s Obama on Reagan:

“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

At the time he said that virtually everyone was adamant that he didn’t mean this in terms of policy, but rather as an illustration of how a president seizes the day to enact fundamental change. It was assumed that he saw his moment as a chance to do something similar in the liberal direction. But since it’s impossible to argue that Obama’s “larger vision of fiscal discipline and sensible spending” is some sort of progressive transformation (since that’s been the mantra of most politicians of both parties for the past 30 years) it may be fair to assume that he really was endorsing Ronald Reagan’s policy trajectory. (If you want to know how he felt about social security, click here.)

It’s true that Ronald Reagan didn’t end Big Government. Neither did Bush, Clinton or Bush II. But they all did their part in making it impossible to do anything that requires people to pay for it. That bill is coming due. It remains to be seen if Obama will be the one who finally picks up the tab.

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