Anyone old enough to remember the Reagan presidency is in shock. The right, because their hero has died; the left, because the eulogizing is so gloriously twisted and exaggerated it brings to mind Reagan himself, who never let the facts get in the way of a good story. If you missed the Reagan administration and need a crash course, here are the lessons that the Republicans learned from the Reagan presidency and have passed on to George W. Bush and America's current rulers.
10. Even if tax cuts build a weaker America they build a stronger Republican party: As economist Lester Thurow has written, "the epitaph of the Reagan presidency will be: When Ronald Reagan became President, the United States was the largest creditor nation. When he left the presidency, we were the world's largest debtor nation." Under cover of his "supply-side" theory, he massively expanded the federal budget deficit and our trade deficit, both of which were harmful in the long run but allowed the Republicans to juice the economy with debt-financed stimulus and win re-election for Reagan. The Republican fable that Reagan returned America to economic strength after the failure of the Carter administration is not borne out by fact. Reagan continued Carter's regulatory reform policies, and only in the final year of his presidency (1988) did employment return to what it had been in 1979. There is no evidence that Reagan's "tax cuts" had any significant economic impact, since they were really a shift in the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class. The long-term effect of the Republican drive to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy is profound. If U.S. taxes were equivalent to those of our European allies, the Social Security Trust Fund would be solvent and sufficient funds would exist to virtually eliminate poverty and provide significant investment in public education -- so when you see substandard housing and underfunded public schools, think of Ronald Reagan.
9. A President must take full responsibility for everything except mistakes and illegal activities: Reagan's campaign manager, William Casey, negotiated the sale of weapons to Iran to secure the release of America's hostages held there, a direct violation of U.S. law and policy. Once in office as Reagan's CIA director, he illegally oversaw the transfer of funds to right-wing counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.The official response to the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is eerily similar to the story created to defend the Reagan administration's cover-up of Iran-Contra: that it was the work of a few rogue employees who were operating at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Reagan
Administration's official cover story was that an
employee (Oliver North) in the White House's National Security Council
brokered the illegal sale of weapons to America's enemies and used the
money to finance right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua and El
Salvador. In reality, nothing like this was possible without the tacit cooperation of the CIA, NSA, and the rest of the military establishment, but the thin veneer of plausibility enabled the administration to deflect blame from the leaders, who escaped prosecution for their crimes. In addition to Reagan, whose knowledge of the activities of his own government was sketchy at best, George H. W. Bush also claimed to have been "out of the loop" despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary. The debate over culpability often glides right past the question of what we were doing training and equipping forces widely cited by international human rights organizations as being barbaric and inhumane. Because they called themselves anti-communist, the Reagan administration welcomed them as allies and refused to permit their crimes to be investigated -- just as today we accept profoundly anti-democratic regimes in Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia because they are willing to help us plunder Afghanistan and Iraq.
8. While overt racism is unseemly, a Republican leader should signal to white-power proponents that he agrees with them: Reagan pioneered insulting the poor and powerless and proved how popular this is with white men. Launching his candidacy for the presidency in the deep south where white civil-rights workers had been murdered, he invoked ”states' rights,” language that substituted for the discredited claims of Caucasian racial supremacy as the racist's rallying cry. Reagan's characterization of black women on public assistance as "welfare queens" enabled white people to openly loathe them again, behavior that, during the height of the civil-rights movement, had been considered rude and boorish. Had Reagan genuinely cared about misappropriation of public funds, he would not have been indifferent to corporate crimes that looted more money from both public and private coffers than all of the black women in American history (including Oprah Winfrey) have ever seen. The blindness of Reagan's Justice Department permitted new forms of corporate fraud to be pioneered such as junk bonds that stole billions from investors and the misuse of savings and loan charters, creating a scandal that drained billions from the public treasury. Neither of these massive rip-offs attracted Reagan's attention because their perpetrators and the beneficiaries of these crimes were almost entirely male Caucasians.
7. Nations that assist the United States in its foreign policy goals can murder, torture, and imprison anyone necessary to maintain stability: Reagan's ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, now in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq, gave American moral and financial support to Roberto d'Aubuisson and his ARENA Party in El Salvador, a barely veiled political arm of the death squads that terrorized the country in the name of democracy and freedom. Reagan also remained silent on the great crusade against apartheid in South Africa, which he considered a matter for the South African military to manage by itself with assistance from American arms dealers.
6. Bust unions whenever you can, because those people are a danger to the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of trust-fund Republicans. Among Reagan's first acts in office was the crushing of the air traffic controllers union. Reagan refused to negotiate and ordered the hiring of more compliant workers. When Libyan agents brought down an American passenger plane over Lockerbee, Scotland, he diverted attention from the lack of security in the international airline system instead unsuccessfully dispatching warplanes to kill Libyan leader Muammar Quaddafi.
5. The most effective way to please corporate contributors is to appoint regulatory chiefs who will undermine their agencies from within: In naming James Watt and Anne Gorsuch to the top positions at the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency, Reagan pioneered a method not even Nixon dared use to undermine environmental regulation -- having people resolutely opposed to the success of their agency in the top leadership roles, resulting in dirtier air and water, improper handling of solid waste, minimal efforts at recycling, delays in the cleanup of hazardous wastes, etc.
4. If defense policies serve only to tie corporate interests more closely to the Republican party without making the nation more secure, that's good enough. Reagan's Defense Department spent billions of dollars on a ”Star Wars” missile defense system that did not work then and does not work now. (and, even if it did work, would be preparation for a threat that no longer exists). In conjunction with the privatization of military functions, Reagan helped create a class of enterprise that could be trusted to give generously to Republican causes and was almost entirely dependent upon the maintenance of a high level of international hostility. These companies, such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and others are the core constituency of the Republican party.
3. No global problem is too big to be ignored. In the Reagan administration, no urgent social and medical problem was more resolutely ignored than the worldwide spread of AIDS. Reagan's indifference to the plight of gay men who were among the first to be struck by the AIDS virus led to thousands of needless deaths. His demonizing of homosexuals and characterization of AIDS as a plague from God raised homophobia to a new level of acceptability, from which it has only recently recovered. In the Bush administration, the preponderance of the evidence for global warming and the international consensus that it be addressed collectively have been ignored with equal vigor.
2. If you are affable, the commercial news media will judge you on your intentions rather than your actual results. Reagan proved that image is everything. As long as he was charming, reporters who asked difficult questions would be shunned by their peers as acting rude toward a nice old man. Bush has held even fewer public news conferences than Reagan yet his management of the news media has produced little backlash, despite his lies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, a link between Hussein and al-Qaeda, the effect of massive tax cuts, etc. Like Reagan, Bush has succeeded in getting the news media to judge him on the wellness of his intentions rather than on the wisdom of his judgment.
1. Boldly claim credit for major historic events and make it seem that you caused them: After 60 years communism in Russia and Eastern Europe was falling under the weight of its inability to perform economically and its massive worldwide military commitments. Its legitimacy was under significant attack from within and was further undermined by the loss of the Soviet Army to insurgents in Afghanistan. Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev's economic and political liberalization, intended to improve openness and productivity, raised expectations that rapidly ran ahead of actual results and led to a breakdown of public authority. This was exploited by Boris Yeltsin and other reformers who seized power. It is liberalization that could not be controlled that ended totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union -- not the expansion of American military spending. That Reagan and the Republican Party do not understand nor deserve credit for the fall of communism in Russia can be more or less proven by two observations. First, the Soviet Union had already maxed out its military capacity long before Reagan's military build-up began. Second, the Republicans are unwilling to use a warming of relations to bring down the government of Cuba, instead maintaining a hard-line policy that has no chance of working. Instead of being confronted with expanded trade and cultural exchanges that could cause his people to seek political and economic liberalization, Castro can count on persistent hard-line opposition from the United States and the continuation of a useless economic embargo against his country. This enables Castro to argue that further tight economic and political controls are necessary and to shield Cuban citizens from interaction with Americans. It permits the Republicans to please the Cuban-American community, without which its tenuous hold on power in Florida might be lost. Despite this, the Republicans will claim credit for bringing down Castro when he finally dies of old age.
The sanitized version of history presented in the Reagan obituaries, in which Ronald Reagan is the brave hero who saved America from economic collapse and enabled a God-loving people to triumph over evil, is as far from the truth as most stories you will ever hear. In reality, Reagan was the first figurehead president, incapable of answering questions about the policies of his administration that he understood in only the most summary way, and responsible only as the public spokesperson for decisions made by others. Reagan enhanced the role of the Republican Party as the primary vehicle for the sale of influence to corporate decision-makers eager to undermine the national government, the only institution powerful enough to confront global commercial interests seeking to evade environmental, labor, and other standards of conduct. By evicerating public authority, bankrupting the public treasury, and projecting a sunny personality to deflect the critical evaluation of his actual job performance, Bush continues the tradition Reagan began.
David Lytel served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Clinton Administration. He holds a PhD in government from Cornell and now runs ReDefeatBush.com, a political action committee whose goal is to register a million new Democrats in key battleground states. Join the online discussion of this article by visiting http://www.redefeatbush.com/reagan