A Specter (Not Arlen) is Haunting the GOP

It would be either paranoid or delusional to think that Daniel Henninger had me in mind as he wrote today’s Wall Street Journal column on the ghost of Ronald Reagan, or that he even numbers me among the “joyful Democratic bloggers” who think it’s time for the GOP to leave Reagan behind. But he has managed to draw me out (and not just because I don’t want to be mistaken for a Democrat, or a blogger, or, even worse, confused with the joyful).

You can definitely count me among those who think that expecting Ronald Reagan to lead the GOP out of the wilderness is not a viable political strategy, but just nostalgia, or more waiting for Godot. I said so in a previous post and in a letter responding to a March 5th Henninger column. The letter ran in the Journal under the title “Can’t Live in the Past” and managed to generate some discussion online among adherents to the cult of Reagan; the Journal ran a response from a young woman who held Ronald Reagan in the highest esteem, even though she was a child when he was in the White House, and who took exception to my view that younger voters who turned out for Obama might not exactly be drawn in by paeans to a dead man. My position wasn’t all that far from Jeb Bush’s own: “I felt like there was a lot of nostalgia and the good old days in the [GOP] messaging. I mean, it’s great, but it doesn’t draw people toward your cause.”

I’m still not exactly sure what any of this had to do with the purported subject of Henninger’s original column, which urged Republicans to start talking about economic growth and develop a political platform around growth, but I was delighted to discover that I had managed to hit a nerve.

I’m not out to be a scourge or a gadfly, or simply to irritate. I’d wanted to start a conversation about history, and its claim on the present. Nor am I out to be a mythbuster. There’s nothing wrong with having heroes and stories of the great deeds of great men to inform and guide your politics. In the classical world, that was considered one of the functions of history. I would only caution that you had better not look too closely at those men, because they are after all, men. Even saints err, as one saint (Thomas More) pointed out after studying another (St. Augustine): homo erat, errare potuit. The longer people accept and embrace the fabled past uncritically, the denser the cloud of nostalgia grows, and the further removed your politics will be from history and what really happened.

Again, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with all that. Myths and fables have value, not just cultural but real political value. We believe — or at least we used to be brought up believing — all sorts of things about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln that won’t stand up to very close scrutiny. We even learned them in school; they were moral tales, and they taught us things about the country and about the kind of people we were, the people we should strive to be. Those stories sacrificed some precision about how things really were to tell us how things ought to have been and ought to be.

Being a Reagan Republican may eventually involve the same trade off, and require less in the way of historical knowledge of Ronald Reagan’s presidency or critical interpretation of the past twenty-five years of American political and economic history and more in the way of catechism and fairy tales. To that end, I suppose, Henninger has taken steps in today’s column to start spelling out the articles of the faith, which the late Jack Kemp reduced to a Reaganite trinity: work, save and invest.

The full Kemp phrase, of course, was “incentives to work, save and invest.” Those incentives were to be the result of a government willing to admit the social benefits of modesty — in taxation and regulation of the economy. For now, the American public has elected an immodest government.

Leave aside for the moment that work, save and invest is not exactly a battle cry on the order of we are the change we have been waiting for. Solving that problem is just a matter of working with the material. Consider, instead, the claim for Reagan’s “modesty” and the social benefits it delivered. There are probably less charitable ways to describe Reagan’s approach to taxation than modesty; and modest regulation is really a euphemism for deregulation. But for Henninger the real difference lies in the fact that the new Obama budget sets out a full blown industrial policy; and that makes Obama the enemy of entrepreneurial capitalism:

Mr. Obama’s document genuflects to “the market economy,” then argues that it won’t endure unless we “sacrifice” (through tax increases) to make “overdue investments” (which literally only means public spending) on four explicit goals: green energy, infrastructure, public health care, and education.This calls to mind the way Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry guided that economy from 1949 to 2001. The Obama-Rattner strategy for GM and Chrysler — a rescue if the companies agree to the government’s desire to build more small “green” cars, presumably sold with a large tax credit — is industrial policy. Why be postwar Japan?

It is not conceivable that a Reagan or Kemp would have directed the U.S. economy’s legendary energies into building hybrid cars, windmills and bullet trains.

Republicans these days seem to paint themselves into corners very easily, and this passage proves that the wily Henninger is no exception. Criticize, if you will, the making of industrial policy; but restrain yourself enough so that you don’t start to sound like the enemy of health care reform, or the anti-environmentalist, anti-alternative energy, anti-education party. Why, instead, aren’t we discussing positive Republican ideas and contributions in those areas?

To put it another way, the Republicans would probably benefit handsomely right now from some greening (evangelicals already have), some distance from Big Oil, a serious commitment to education and research, and the honesty to admit that the American healthcare system is broken. But they’re not going there. After all, can you imagine Ronald Reagan or Jack Kemp going there? No, you really can’t. And that’s why it’s time to move on.

What’s more, the notion that Ronald Reagan was a great champion of entrepreneurial capitalism who did not and would never have indulged in setting industrial policy is a Reagan myth — a story constructed by Ronald Reagan himself. The truth is much more complex. As Robert Reich pointed out in an editorial he wrote for the Times in 1985, Reagan may have steered clear of the phrase “industrial policy,” but in the course of his first term he had initiated “a major experiment in economic planning,” and he had done so with “a heavy hand.”

Viewed as a whole, Mr. Reagan’s budget deficit, tax plan and military buildup comprise an extraordinarily ambitious plan for shifting America’s industrial base. This is industrial policy with a vengeance. But because Mr. Reagan is who he is – avowed defender of the free market from the depradations of big government -there are no voices to his right, vigorously denouncing Washington’s vulgar intrusion into the temple of the marketplace. As only Richard Nixon could open relations with Peking, so only Ronald Reagan can make economic planning respectable.

Reagan lives on and continues to haunt — and, I would add, hinder — the Republicans in part because he knew how to tell a good story about himself. He surrounded himself with good storytellers. All good leaders do that; it’s called soft power. And it’s a sign of the GOP’s intellectual poverty and lack of good leadership that they are still telling this same old story, and trying to frighten us from the future with a specter from the past.

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