January 20 marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President. And February 6 marked the 103rd birthday of the former sports announcer, actor, governor of California and 40th President of the United States of America. Reagan’s economic legacy is one of failure, but in another way it could be argued that he was genuinely transformative: as the first celebrity politician for the modern corporate state.
Every president is ultimately judged on great ideas, visions, and responses to historical forces. Some of the forces that shaped the Reagan presidency could be seen with the unaided eye, like the fall of Communism (a long-developing trend that came to a head during the Reagan administration). Others were less visible but nevertheless shaped his Presidency.
It’s ironic, given his professional history, but Reagan may have been less of an “actor” in the historical sense than any president of modern times. He was acted upon, by economic interests and social forces toward whom he demonstrated neither the ability to understand nor the willingness to learn.
That’s not to say he was without gifts. Ronald Reagan was intelligent and articulate. (His posthumously published letters should end any doubts on that score.) He was an extraordinary communicator. And he was, at least in his public persona, eminently likeable.
In other words, he was a great salesman. And Reagan, who would have been described in modern parlance as a “B-list celebrity,” had the good fortune to demonstrate some A-game sales skill just as the modern American corporation was coming into being.
As host of the “GE Theater” in the 1950s, Reagan was the public face of a rapidly expanding manufacturing company. GE would soon become a multinational corporation, poised to benefit from the pro-business trade policies Reagan and his successors were to pursue. Like some sort of corporate shapeshifter, GE even formally became a bank – just in time to benefit from the Wall Street bailouts.
Reagan, who would mock “special interests” in his first inaugural speech, then became a spokesperson for one of the most powerful of them – doctors. He deployed scare tactics, hard-right imagery and merciless Red-baiting in a failed attempt to defeat Medicare. That program, along with Social Security, is one of the most successful and popular government programs in American history.
Then came Reagan's nomination speech for Barry Goldwater. Goldwater, like many conservatives of his time, had a grim and joyless affect. But the assembled business leaders and political bosses saw that Reagan was, at least outwardly, a new kind of conservative: sunny, funny, and light on his feet.
Ronald Reagan was a closer.
And yet, for all the lightness of his bearing, Ronald Reagan could sound as extremist as today’s most irrational gun-toting Tea Partier. In his Goldwater nomination speech, for example, Reagan said that "the Founding Fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people ... when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing."
With rhetoric like that, is it any wonder that 44 percent of today’s Republicans believe that “in the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties”? This brand of far-right extremism believes that government itself – democratically elected, fully representative government – is fundamentally unjust unless that government serves the far right, and only the far right.
This ugly remnant of the Reagan legacy constitutes a grave threat to peaceful democratic process.
The avuncular Reagan could also be consummately, shockingly mean-spirited, as when he said in endorsing Goldwater: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.”
Mean-spirited, and not very funny.
Reagan used the same speech to argue for the privatization of Social Security. Put it all together and you have the record of a man who: changed his opinions to those of his well-paying sponsors, however sincere that change may have been; stood in opposition to two highly popular and successful government programs; mocked the hungry and poor; repeatedly Red-baited his opponents (he routinely warned of “a thousand years of darkness” if his opponents prevailed); and fueled a growing movement of rage-filled anti-government extremism.
All this, and we’re only up to 1964.
After the “Time of Choosing” speech, Reagan was quickly asked to run for governor of California by well-heeled and powerful backers. He was a national figure by 1970, when future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce detailing a plan to capture a wide range of American institutions for big business and wealthy individuals.
Ronald Reagan was now the man of the hour. In ten years he would become president.
And what of that presidency? The economic data demonstrates the depth of Reagan’s failure. (See the Reagan page at the Campaign for America’s Future for more, including Robert Borosage on Reagan’s Ruins, Dave Johnson’s analysis of Reagan’s impact on America’s infrastructure, and a slideshow presentation on the harmful economic effects of the Reagan Revolution.)
Undeterred by reality, the ideology that Reagan espoused has captured the GOP and continues to leave devastation in its wake – unless you’re wealthy, in which case the ongoing “Reagan Revolution” has been (or should have been) a literal embarrassment of riches.
That’s a lot of failure. But when will our capital’s political perception catch up? Inside the Beltway, they still revere Reagan’s broken legacy.
You’d think Reagan's ideological opponents would be making hay out of this record of failure. Instead there have been echoes of Reagan rhetoric in the speeches of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Although they’ve fought some aspects of the Reagan legacy, his Democratic successors have embraced others – on deficit spending, deregulation, downsizing government, and the often-mythical “power of the free market.”
If Bill Clinton and his economic team had not done so, we might have avoided the financial crisis of 2008 and today’s ongoing misery. Instead, many members of the Clinton team went on to lead Obama’s economic efforts. Why aren’t more powerful Democrats willing to challenge the Reagan record?
At his inauguration 25 years ago, Reagan spoke those famous words, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
“Government is the problem”? Tell that to the millions of senior citizens who are being lifted out of poverty by Medicare and Social Security.
“Government is the problem”? Tell that to the generations of middle-class Americans who prospered because American leaders invested in their nation – including Republicans like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who built the federal highway system.
“Government is the problem”? Tell that to anyone who learned to read because of a caring teacher.
“Government is the problem”? Tell that to the young American veterans who went to college on the GI Bill after World War II, helping their families – and their nation – enjoy decades of prosperity in the process.
The problem isn’t government. The problem is that too many politicians and media figures refuse to see the Reagan legacy for what it is: a successful sales campaign for yet another lousy corporate product.
In the end, a salesman is only as good as the goods he sells. That, and that alone, should define the Reagan legacy of failure.