Sunday, June 07, 2009

Was Ronald Reagan an Even Worse President Than George W. Bush?

From Consortium News via AlterNet:

Granted, the very idea of rating Reagan as one of the worst presidents ever will infuriate his many right-wing acolytes and offend Washington insiders who have made a cottage industry out of buying some protection from Republicans by lauding the 40th President.

But there's a growing realization that the starting point for many of the catastrophes confronting the United States today can be traced to Reagan's presidency. There's also a grudging reassessment that the "failed" presidents of the 1970s – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter – may deserve more credit for trying to grapple with the problems that now beset the country.

Nixon, Ford and Carter won scant praise for addressing the systemic challenges of America's oil dependence, environmental degradation, the arms race, and nuclear proliferation – all issues that Reagan essentially ignored and that now threaten America's future.


With his superficially sunny disposition – and a ruthless political strategy of exploiting white-male resentments – Reagan convinced millions of Americans that the threats they faced were: African-American welfare queens, Central American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government.

In his First Inaugural Address in 1981, Reagan declared that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

More here.

The essay goes on to offer an ambiguous answer to the question its title asks: Bush was an awful president, but Reagan laid the philosophical groundwork, if such ideas actually rise to the level of "philosophical," for our recent chief executive's most spectacular failures.

But here's my answer. Bush was indeed worse than Reagan. After all, for the most part, Reagan had a Democratic Congress, as well as much more liberal attitudes among voters at the time, to rein him in. That is, Reagan's actions didn't quite match up to his rhetoric in the way that Bush's did--indeed, Reagan, "the great tax cutter," was also the great tax raiser; when it became apparent how much damage his early cuts would do to both the government and the economy, the Gipper flip-flopped, and restored taxes to essentially the same rates they were before he was elected. He also had a more competent administration around him, Republicans who hadn't completely embraced the message that government was to be dismantled, rather than run efficiently. President Bush, on the other hand, seems to have believed the bullshit, and governed accordingly.

When your central philosophy of governance is shit, that's how you're going to govern, and Bush was no exception to such an obvious truism.

But that doesn't get Reagan off the hook. As the essay asserts, it all started with him. Well, to be fair, you see the Conservative Movement's roots going all the way back to Goldwater's presidential run in 1964, or William F. Buckley's founding of The National Review back in the late 50s, or the horror experienced by fundamentalist Christians at the sexual excesses of the 1960s, or by those same religious nuts reacting to Roe versus Wade, or by Milton Friedman's supply side psycho-economics taught at the University of Chicago in the 1970s. But it all came together with Reagan. He was the guy who united free market fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, anti-drug law-and-order Nazis, and anti-communist hawks under one umbrella. He was the one who gave it all a friendly, smiling, movie star handsome face. You can't possibly have George W. Bush if you don't have Reagan first.

But then, I'm also very much of the opinion that pretty much anybody could have done it, if Reagan hadn't. It was simply a matter of time. The conservatives were working their asses off to overthrow the center-left coalition that had ruled the nation since the Great Depression, and they would have found somebody to embody their values. Maybe Charlton Heston, maybe somebody else. Really, it could have been anybody, as long as he talked good.

Because there's one other precedent Reagan set for Bush to follow: actor-as-president. We were lucky during the Reagan era. The whole shit house did not cave in the way it has recently. But as long as the GOP found it a desirable strategy to run what has amounted to a couple of figure heads for the Oval Office, governmental self-destruction has been inevitable. A robot man is quite simply a bad choice for a leadership position.