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A New Reagan

Political analyst Henry Olsen has written an iconoclastic portrait of a man conservatives thought they knew: Ronald Reagan. Olsen, a veteran of several conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C., is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who writes frequently for National Review. A stalwart of the GOP, he has a track record of highly accurate predictions of the outcomes of U.S. elections. In 2014 he coauthored (with Dante J. Scala) The Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination. His new book is his first as sole author. The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism closely examines the entire span of the 40th President’s speeches, correspondence, and other writings and finds a decidedly non-libertarian Ronald Reagan—the Reagan who modeled himself on Franklin Roosevelt and was not hostile to, but supportive of, the social safety net.

For our latest installment of Conversations, Law and Liberty Associate Editor Lauren Weiner put questions to Olsen about The Working Class Republican. Here is our Q and A.

Lauren Weiner: A phrase from President Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address is often invoked to summarize his philosophy: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Is this book an attempt to dislodge that phrase from people’s minds?

Henry Olsen: No. It is an attempt to understand Reagan as he understood himself, which was as someone who both loved liberty and supported many of the government innovations launched after the 1932 election.

 

LW: You write that Reagan’s politics were a “unique mix of New Deal liberalism and freedom-loving conservatism combined with his principled, non-ideological view of the world.” People were generally aware that his political beginnings were as a New Dealer and a labor leader (head of the Screen Actors’ Guild). All the same, does The Working Class Republican make a figure whom people thought they understood into a rather incoherent one?

HO: No. It makes something that was otherwise incoherent about Reagan—how he could raise taxes and increase spending as California’s Governor and as President of the United States, as well as approve of new regulatory bodies or actions, while condemning government action generally—completely coherent. My research explains how Reagan could do both things out of a coherent philosophy whereas other explanations rely on post hoc rationalizations such as his prudence, his sentimentality, or something else.

LW: The Democratic Party, to which Reagan belonged until 1962 (or at least he did not register as a Republican until that year), changed over time. This is part of the historical context that readers get from you: that by the early 1960s, Democrats had embraced social and economic planning. One might say the book presents the man who supposedly defines the modern Republican Party as, in essence, a pre-1960s Democrat. To what degree were the political views of Ronald Reagan sheer adjustment to the ever-leftward drift of American politics?

HO: Reagan always denied he changed his views much, and I think it is good to credit that as truth. He certainly changed his positions on many issues, which he freely acknowledged, but for him, those were to be distinguished from his underlying views. On those, I think he was amazingly consistent. I believe that had the Democratic Party not moved leftward on economic, defense, and, later in his career, on social issues, he likely would have remained a Democrat throughout his life. But it did, and hence he did not.

LW: You refer often to the difference between ideology and principle. Can you explain the difference in relation to Reagan the man and Reagan the politician?

HO: My book goes into that in detail in pages 152 through 158. Reagan himself made that the focus of his first major post-1976 political speech, given at the Conservative Political Action Conference, entitled “The New Republican Party.” In that speech, Reagan distinguished principle, on which that new party would be based, from ideology. He defined ideology as a “rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality,” something that “chopped off and discarded [facts if they] don’t happen to fit the ideology.” He further noted that “ideological fanatics” are people “who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life.” Reagan as a man and as a politician acted from principles, which meant he could change his specific views regarding how to act considering circumstances or new evidence.

LW: You write that “crucial to understanding Reagan’s thought” is the “distinction between government help for the needy, which was good, and government direction of society, which was bad.” What if in giving the needy more and more help, or in classifying more and more Americans as in need of assistance, government funds its efforts by imposing itself ever more heavily on (i.e. directing) the citizenry? In other words, is the distinction Reagan was trying to make really tenable in the end?

HO: Reagan believed that need was an objective concept and as such could be known and acted upon. His political life as a conservative was very consistent in defining the circumstances under which true need could be found, and in supporting action in those instances, while decrying efforts to expand assistance beyond those people. Reagan also distinguished between “help” and “payments.” Sometimes “help” meant deferring tuition for college students, something he proposed in an interview he gave with Reason magazine in July 1975. Sometimes it meant helping welfare recipients find work, or funding a real job rather than sending a no-obligation check.

This really comes down to a question of assessing the capacity of citizens for self-government. I discuss this on pages 134 through 141 when analyzing the Reason interview. Reagan resisted every effort of his interviewer (the magazine’s founding editor, Manny Klausner) to say that some specific action was completely outside the competency of government to act. He believed that the people, acting through their representatives or directly, could hear different arguments and decide wisely. Most, if not all, libertarians do not share this faith, hence they make arguments like the one presented above: that any governmental action at all inevitably leads to tyranny. If the distinction Reagan believes in is not possible, the American experiment in self-government is not tenable, either.

LW: It has been said that Donald Trump isn’t ideological. When Rush Limbaugh says it, it’s intended as a sympathetic description of the President. But it could also be referring to the fact that his politics are not very coherent. How would you compare Trump and Reagan?

HO: Trump, unlike Reagan, has no clear political principles. In that way he is completely unlike Reagan. He is also angry where Reagan was pleasant, combative where Reagan was conciliatory. They are totally dissimilar in mien.

But in one important way, they are very much simpatico. Both men placed the needs of the average American worker at the center of their worldview, and both pledged to put the full power of the federal government toward advancing average workers’ interests. This sense of caring, combined with their embrace of an active executive, allowed them to win over the same sort of person who normally eludes conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans alike: the working-class voter.

Reader Discussion

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on October 23, 2017 at 13:12:15 pm

"[Reagan] defined ideology as a “rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality,” something that “chopped off and discarded [facts if they] don’t happen to fit the ideology.”

Trickle-down economics and free-trade are examples of ideology. Articles of blind faith. They didn't work, but that fact hasn't deterred True Believers.™

Killing off the destitute seems to be another core tenet of Modern Republicanism.

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Trevor Chase
on October 23, 2017 at 13:16:38 pm

In short, since 1932 FDR, Truman, Reagan and Trump may be considered to be Leveller republicans and the rest are Grandee Whigs.

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EK
on October 23, 2017 at 13:40:33 pm

Trickle-down economics and free-trade are examples of ideology.

They didn’t work.

It would appear that the above two comments ARE BLIND FAITH and are indeed THE Core tenet of the Modern Left.

It did work and we embarked on a two decade long era of growth.

Then again, "killing" off the truth is a core tenet of the Left.

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gabe
on October 23, 2017 at 17:27:10 pm

It did work and we embarked on a two decade long era of growth.

Two decades? Reagan was only in office for eight years--and GDP growth tanked under the G.H.W. Bush Administration that followed.

Here's a discussion of US GDP growth rates by president. Yup, GDP grew 0.2 % faster under Reagan than under Carter--largely because OPEC collapsed during Reagan's administration (although there were many other factors, too).

For what it's worth, overall GDP growth was slower in the 1980s than in either the 1970s or the 1990s. I suspect that our perceptions get distorted because we tend to think of whatever was happening at the END of a decade (or an administration) as emblematic of the entire period. Until 1964 (Beatles, Johnson, Gulf of Tonkin Resolution), the 1960s looked a lot like the 1950s.

(Admittedly, 1929 arguably looked more like the 1930s than the 1920s, so there's that.)

But Reagan is one of the few Republican administrations that saw GDP growth above the national average of 2.9%. GDP tends to grow faster during Democratic administrations; deficits tend to grow more under Republican administrations. Now, I'm generally skeptical that government can do that much to influence growth rates, so I suspect that correlation is mostly chance. But the data at least refutes the idea that Republican administrations are somehow better for growth.

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nobody.really
on October 23, 2017 at 19:58:12 pm

You might, perhaps, read Adam Smith's great work "The Wealth of Nations". If you do you will find your contentions are like those of Young Frankenstein's grandfather -- "doo-doo".

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jafco
on October 23, 2017 at 20:02:36 pm

Yep - BUT - it may be argfued that the growth during the clinonists regime was the end result of reagan initiated policies. As you yourself have remarked, the effects of governmental (and private) inputs into the economy ARE NOT immediately observable (nor can they be as the economy is massive)) - as an example, much of the tech boom was assisted by the by-then substantial capital available from the 401K program. Yep, all those nickel and dimes I squirreled away finally added up to something - but this took some time to reach a level where it could have a significant influence. Recall also that the Elder Bush ( Read my Lips aside) was not quite so fortunate as Billy Boy, to have had the tech sector break out.

Thus, there is much to what you say. Government cannot generally do much to advance the economy; However, it sure as sugar can do much to impede it. Credit Ronnie Rayguns with recognizing that it was better to get out of the way (via tax rate reduction (but not an decrease in gubmint revenues) and let the economy develop *somewhat* less fettered than other administrations.

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gabe
on October 23, 2017 at 21:54:24 pm

Why do I fall for the bait?

[I]t may be argued that the growth during the Clinonists regime was the end result of Reagan initiated policies. As you yourself have remarked, the effects of governmental (and private) inputs into the economy ARE NOT immediately observable (nor can they be as the economy is massive)) – as an example, much of the tech boom was assisted by the by-then substantial capital available from the 401K program. Yep, all those nickel and dimes I squirreled away finally added up to something – but this took some time to reach a level where it could have a significant influence.

Hm. You’re speculating about some strongly lagged variables there. But I suppose it’s possible.

Likewise, I suppose it’s possible that Reagan was the beneficiary of the deregulation movement started under Nixon, but largely implemented by Ford and Carter.

Ford passed the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, and started the antitrust litigation that would eventually break up the AT&T telephone monopoly.

Carter passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, The Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980, and the Regulatory Flexibility Act of 1980.

(In addition, Carter bit the bullet to end inflation. Inflation raged throughout the 1970s. Nixon couldn’t stop it. Ford tried, distributing his orange WIN buttons (“Whip Inflation NowI”). Then Carter stepped in and appointed Paul Volker as the head of the Federal Reserve, with the understanding that Volker would crack down on the money supply. In the short run, this would cause interest rates and unemployment to spike—but it would break the back of inflationary expectations. Reagan was only too happy to take advantage of Carter’s policy, complaining about the “Misery Index” measured on the basis of unemployment and inflation. But by the time Reagan took office, the medicine had done much of its work, and Volker was about to expand the money supply throughout Reagan’s administration.)

Finally, Carter took one additional step: He passed the Revenue Act of 1978, a tax measure bill that, among other things, created the 401K plan! So nope, Reagan doesn’t get to claim that one.

Rather, Reagan contributed the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982, the Ocean Shipping Act of 1984, and the Surface Freight Forwarder Deregulation Act of 1986. Reagan also passed the Garn–St Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982—resulting in the speculative rise and then collapse of the savings & loan industry in the 1980s and triggering the need for taxpayer bailout of the industry.

Reagan also reformed the tax code in 1986,

Finally, Reagan broke the back of the PATCO labor union, signaling the decline of the power of organized labor.

For their parts, George H.W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, while Clinton added the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 1998.

Credit Ronnie Rayguns with recognizing that it was better to get out of the way (via tax rate reduction (but not a decrease in gubmint revenues)….

It’s true that government revenues did not decline in absolute terms following the 1986 tax reform. In part this reflects Reagan’s tax increases: He increased FICA (Social Security) tax rates by about 25%, and he increased income taxes somewhat when he realized that his initial cuts were unsustainable.

But there are two larger points. First, evidence suggests that tax receipts did decline relative to what they would have been in the absence of the tax cuts. Government revenues grew at the slowest rate of any decade, even without a major recession. That is, the Laffer Curve didn’t work out here.

Second, we need revenues to bear some relationship to expenses in the long run. We need healthy books so that we have resources to call upon during wars and recessions. Yet, as the nation grows, government expenses grow. Thus the relevant benchmark is not the level of revenues, but the level of revenues relative to expenses. Under Reagan, the deficit ballooned even without any major war or recession. If we can’t even come close to paying our bills during good times, then when can we?

Basically, Reagan didn’t care. As Dick Cheney would later remark, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. Presumably he meant “don’t matter for purposes of getting re-elected.” ‘Cuz they will obviously matter to the nation’s welfare in the long run—if anyone cares about that.

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nobody.really
on October 24, 2017 at 10:16:04 am

Hey, good point on the Rev Act of 1978 and 401K - was unaware of that.

Why did it remain so obscure / underutlilzed until the 1980's?

And yep, ronnie Rayguns really did not do much to "stop the growth" of gubmint, as he often proclaimed even when he had sufficient support in the congress.

I think the point is still valid - so much of what we claim for our Chief Executive is nothing more than the belated birthday presents of a forgotten relative.

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gabe
on October 24, 2017 at 14:36:19 pm

BTW:

why did it remain so obscure?

It seems that although the 401k provision was part of the Rev Act of 1978, that it was not until November of 1981 that rules were issued that clarified eligibility and in 1982, under ronnie Rayguns, that the IRS issued final rules that may be said to have encouraged emploers and employees to utilize this provision.

So, I guess there IS credit to go around. _ Ha!

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gabe
on October 26, 2017 at 09:50:09 am

I've never thought Limbaugh is being sympathetic to Trump by saying he's not ideological. Limbaugh is explaining Trump to people who are accustomed to analyzing ideological politicians. You cannot understand Trump through the lens of "conservative" or "liberal." Limbaugh sees Trump as goal-oriented, or what I think Olsen means by principled, and in that I think Limbaugh has grasped Trump better than most observers of politics. Maybe understanding Trump is in fact sympathetic (some Holocaust scholars have warned that understanding is tantamount to excusing), but even so I would think that if we desire to know what is really happening around us, trying to see Trump as he sees himself is an important starting point for further analysis.

Likewise with Reagan. Sounds like Olsen is doing valuable work separating Reagan from Reaganism. Sen. Flake, like many conservatives, is a Reaganist, and highly ideological, while it appears that Reagan himself was much more practical. Reagan was also a very influential president, while politicians like Flake have a hard time maintaining their relevance when their ideology gets in the way of their principles.

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XianLSE

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