A lot of people - even critics - think of Reagan wistfully, nostalgically. They think he was strong, stood up for America, was optimistic, and was probably a nice guy. In fact, he was a cynical, hypocritical con man who learned how to get people to like him with his ticks and charms (tilt head, two beats "well...heh, heh"). He got people to trust him with well-scripted, well-rehearsed lines, and then took them (us) to the cleaners - the colossal trench of debt we are digging for our kids, and the complete inability of current politicians to even discuss government finance like adults - is all the legacy of Reagan.
As the bulk of this diary will demonstrate, all the vile themes of W's presidency were presaged by Reagan and his crew of evil clowns.
My point in this diary is not to argue that scumbags tearing down our country for their own twisted ideological and/or profiteering agendas is somehow the norm in American politics. My point is that the Reagan Administration set a new low, and that our failure to confront its excesses at the time, set the stage for the outrages of W and crew.
It cannot but pain the hearts of patriotic Americans to contemplate what we're paving the way for if we let the Bush Administration off the hook today.
So, in the interest of illustrating both context and urgency, as we confront our current Constitutional crises, I invite you to sit back, buckle your seatbelt, and come along with me for a ride. For the next few minutes, we will return to those systematically airbrushed days of yesteryear, when deeply flawed, corrupt men (and women) set off the spiraling unraveling of American Democracy.
We are going back to the Reagan era, which officially began 25 years ago today.
(For those of you who lived through the 1980s, and have been able to put it out of your minds, it might be prudent to brace yourselves - reliving some of this stuff... well, this could get pretty rough.)
"When you meet the President you ask yourself, `how did it ever occur to anybody that he should be governor, much less president?' - Henry Kissinger in the mid 1980s, failing to recognize the presence of a news reporter
Lets start by looking at a few headlines from Reagan's first year:
February 11 - "Department of Labor eases requirements for labeling of hazardous chemicals in the workplace."
February 21 - "Reagan Chops Wood as Top Aides Prepare to Sell his Budget Cuts" - NY Times
May 9 - "CIA Seeks Law for Surprise Searches of Newsrooms" - NY Times
May 10 - "Reagan Wants to Abolish Consumer Product Agency" - Washington Post
May 21 - "White House Seeks Eased Bribery Act" - NY Times
August 6 - "White House Seeks to Loosen Standards Under Clean Air Act" - NY Times
December 5 - "Reagan Widens Intelligence Role; Gives CIA Domestic Spy Power" - NY Times </div>
This is just a warm-up.
The following looks a bit more systematically at the odious record. There was so much misguided policy, incompetence, and sleaze that I broke it into three parts:
Today: Class Warfare (You Lost)
Tomorrow: Foreign Policy Disasters
Sunday: Corruption, Whoppers and the Collapse of the Media
I drew heavily from books and articles by Paul Slansky (The Clothes Have no Emperor), Marc Green and Gail MacColl (Reagan's Reign of Error), Garry Wills, and William Greider - most things with a date reference come directly or are paraphrased from the first two sources).
I have broken out a few highlights, here and there, in special boxes, and have tried to flag a few events that - startlingly - reveal how we've subsequently declined even further with "[THINGS HAVE CHANGED]" observations.
"There's a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veterans benefits on 4 non-existing deceased husbands. And she's collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000." (NY Times, 2/15/76)
The "Chicago Welfare Queen" got a lot of play during the 1976 Republican primary. Sometimes she had 12 names and 30 Social Security numbers, sometimes she was also an unwed mother on AFDC. Candidate Reagan never bothered to point out to his shocked small-town audiences that his story was largely allegation and rumor. The woman in question, Linda Taylor, had been officially charged with using 4 aliases - not 80 - and fraudulent collection of $8000--not $150,000. She had not, at the time of Reagan's statements, been convicted of anything.
("Under the Banner of Heaven" describes a white polygamist Mormon community in northern Arizona that receives $8 in state and federal subsidies - prominently including food stamps and Medicaid - for every dollar they pay in taxes. A comparable situation probably applied 20 years ago. Funny that Reagan didn't mention them then. Funny that Democrats don't mention them now.)
"[Reagan] says `You know, a young man went into a grocery store and he had an orange in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other, and he paid for the orange with food stamps and he took the change and paid for the vodka. That's what's wrong.' And we just shake our heads." - Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR) in March, 1982.
On March 24, 1982, Agricultural official Mary C. Jarratt tells Congress her department has been unable to document president Reagan's horror stories of food stamp abuse, pointing out that the change from a food stamp purchase is limited to 99 cents. Deputy White House press secretary Peter Roussel says Reagan wouldn't tell these stories "unless he thought they were accurate."
The subtext of all the welfare queen stories, of course, was racism, and deft leverage of racism to help keep the great shift of southern whites to the Republican Party going. Subtle racism had always been part of Reagan's shtick, and would continue to be.
Reagan was famous for having opposed the voting rights act in the 1960s. To win the California Governorship, he talked often about the "forgotten American, the man in the suburbs working sixty hours a week to support his family and being taxed heavily for the benefit of someone else" (read: black welfare queens).
He was photographed in 1966 by Look magazine standing next to a statue of a painted black lawn jockey with large white lips that welcomed visitors to his Malibu ranch.
In his 1980 campaign, he chose to make a prominent speech in Philadelphia., Mississippi - known outside the state only as the place three activists had been murdered for advocating civil rights (which inspired the movie "Mississippi Burning"). The topic of Reagan's speech was "states' rights," the bulwark states had used for decades to suppress the civil rights of African Americans: "I believe in states' rights... I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment." He went on to promise to "restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them." (Reagan's hagiographers suggest - preposterously - that there was no significance to the setting or the topic of the speech; its actually an interesting case study in the white-washing of Reagan's legacy.)
(By the way, now that they have the majority of all three federal branches, and use the NSA to spy on you, that Republicans have stopped talking about states rights? Not to mention balanced budget amendments, term limits, and all the other bullshit "reforms" they used to spout.)
MLK day last week reminded me of a memoir by Terrell Bell, Reagan's Education Secretary, where he recounted that his peers in the Administration regulalry, cavalierly made references to "Martin Lucifer Coon."
On August 24, 1985, Reagan would claim that the "reformist" administration of P.W. Botha had made significant progress on the racial front - eliminating the type of segregation that had been prevalent in the US in the 1960s. Of course, nothing about Apartheid had changed.
The Great Tax Hiker (Rich People Excluded)
"A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1000 bills 67 miles high." - Ronald Reagan
Another pillar of Reagan's odious, nonsensical ideology was the Laffer curve - the idea that cutting taxes - from whatever rate you may be starting at - will lead to permanent, accelerating increases in federal revenue because of the supposed positive economic impacts that must follow. It is a thoroughly disproven postulate, but "researching" it continues to put bread on the table for armies of right-wing think-tank stooges.
Generally, the most jaw-dropping Reagan-related whoppers are about his economic performance, tax cuts, and budget cuts. Almost nothing said about any of these things is ever true. Reagan oversaw all-time record unemployment and oversaw, among other calamities, the collapse of the US steel industry (which didn't happen to nearly the same extent in other industrialized democracies).
With respect to taxes, average people ended up paying more in taxes at the end of the 1980s than they had at the beginning (both federal - mainly in the form of FICA - and state - partly to offset the disappearance of federal funds).
With respect to budget cuts, well, Reagan is the undisputed father of most of our national debt, now over $6 trillion - through both his own deficits and the brand of budgetary crack he taught his minions how to market (out-of-control deficit spending and borrowing, artfully denied or blamed on Democrats).
Lets focus on the tax-cut lies, as they are the most stunning, enduring, and disastrous. First the prologue in California (drawn from Reagan's Reign of Error):
Reagan statement: "Because I don't think government has a right to take one dollar more than government needs, we gave the surpluses back to the people in the form of tax rebates. We gave back over eight years $5.7 billion to the people of California. We stopped the bureaucracy dead in its tracks, the same way I would like to stop it at its national level."
Truth: Reagan campaigned as the "greatest tax-cutter in the state's history" when, in fact, he was the greatest tax-hiker. The portion of the budget over which the governor has the most control - operations - increased under Reagan from $2.2 billion to $3.5 billion. State income tax revenues quadrupled, sales tax income tripled, and property tax revenue more than doubled. Reagan enacted the largest single tax hike in California history - a $1 billion omnibus tax rate increase. Tax brackets were narrowed in order to soak middle-class taxpayers. The top personal income tax went from 7% to 11%. The "rebates" consisted of shifting the incidence of taxation and redistributing revenues to local government - very little actually went back to taxpayers. As for the stopped-dead bureaucracy: the state budget more than doubled, going from $4.6 billion to $10.2 billion. One analyst put the eight-year increase in real terms as 85%. The number of state employees rose by 5.7%. In the same period, the number of federal civilian employees declined by more than 3%).
As President, Reagan got his requested tax cut on July 30, 1981. On February 27, 1982, the CBO reported that taxpayers making less than $10k lost an average of $240 from the 1981 tax cuts, while those earning over $80k gained an average of $15,130.
David Stockman explained the whole thing - with stunning honesty - in a famous interview with William Greider, then of the Atlantic Monthly. From a prescient retrospective before W reprised Reagan's act:
"Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors... the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." (Atlantic Monthly, 2001)
(When the budget director goes on record that supply side is a "Trojan Horse" -- and keeps his job -- how does supply still hold any currency 25 years later?)
But wouldn't all those tax cuts lead to huge deficits, violating the Republican positioning as deficit hawks? More from Greider:
"The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root-canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink."
Of course, Reagan made a point of constantly referencing his commitment to fiscal discipline, complimented by an array of oversize props (4-foot scissors, saws, hammers, etc.). How did they get away with it?
At first, one critical mechanism was the "magic asterisk." From Greider:
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked.
Greider's retrospective offered a good summary of the long-term structural damage the "Reagan Revolution" caused:
"The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget..."
"...Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
On April 12, 1986 David Stockman published The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. Choice quote: Recalling having to sit through an "embarrassing 20 minute lecture by the ignorant Reagan," Stockman writes, "what do you do when your president ignores all the palpable relevant facts and wanders in circles?"
Reagan may have been an oaf, but his henchmen knew what they were doing, and for whom. An outsized 60 percent of the growth in the average after-tax income of all American families between 1977 and 1989 -- and an even heftier three-fourths of the gain in average pretax income -- went to the wealthiest 660,000 families - less than 1 percent of the total (NY Times, March 5, 1992)
On August 5, 1981, Reagan issued the first notices laying off PATCO members. The PATCO precedent, and the general, unrelenting assualts of Reaganauts on unions, would help expedite the long, painful decline of the labor movement.
December 12, 1982 - unemployment hits 10.8%; 11.9 million were out of work.
Reagan's high-interest rate / strong-dollar policies (to protect the assets of the wealthy from inflation) precipitated the collapse of the steel industry. More than 500,000 jobs were lost in the steel industry alone between 1979 and 1983.
His administration oversaw record numbers of farm failures and bank failures - and S&L failures, wherein taxpayers bailed out unsuccessful rich-guy gamblers (Neil Bush: we'll remember you, too) to the tune of $125 billion.
Conclusion: Part I
The economic record and its distortion makes one angry. The foreign policy record (tomorrow) was outrageous. The corruption (Sunday) makes you wonder how our Democracy broke down so completely.
I'll conclude by restating my major theme: Letting Reagan and friends off the hook set the stage for Bush. Imagine what letting Bush off the hook would set the stage for.