Monday, April 4, 2016

The Reagan Era Is Still In Progress

"We have come to the end of the era of Ronald Reagan."
Thus spake Thomas Foley, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993, when the Democratic Congress passed a tax increase on upper-income Americans to help President Clinton get the economy going.  We all know what happened; the following year, conservative anger at Clinton's change of direction for the country put the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and with the new Republican House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who set the economic policy that would dominate the remainder of Clinton's time in office.  That meant spending cuts on domestic programs, increases in military spending, and policies favorable to business - and no mention of health care reform after Clinton's effort failed.  The combination of the earlier tax hikes and the new spending cuts did produce a budget surplus, but the extra money wouldn't be spent on the country's needs, like Social Security; in 2001, when George Walker Bush became President, it would be instead returned in the form of a tax cut to the greedy, rich bastards who in the 1980s benefited from Reagan's supply-side economics.  Also, the pseudo-liberal Clinton, declaring that the era of big government was over, signed a bill hostile to same-sex marriage, "reformed" welfare by championing a punitive bill that had an impact on poor children, and push telecommunications deregulation.
After eight years of George Walker Bush, from 2001 to 2009, Barack Obama came into the White House with a great deal of promise and a Democratic Congress, in the aftermath of the financial crisis that brought Wall Street and the country to their knees, and it looked like he would be the one to change the trajectory of the country back toward a more liberal direction.  Then, a month into his first term, the Tea Party exploded, at first calling for just reduced taxes and spending but, as soon as it helped the Republicans take back the House and several state governments, pursued socially reactionary policies that have destroyed unions and women's rights, among other liberal initiatives.  Even homosexuals and transsexuals, their marriage rights secured, still have to deal with curbs on their civil liberties for reasons of "religious freedom."  And the banks haven't gotten any smaller since the financial crisis.  The Reagan era is still no closer to ending in 2016 than it was when the senior George Bush became President in 1989 and locked in Reagan's conservative change of course.      
Barack Obama was correct in having pointed out in 2008 that Ronald Reagan had in fact changed the direction of the country to the right, but his expectation that he could turn it back proved to be grossly premature, that is, dead wrong.  The sad fact for liberals is that, when a U.S. President fundamentally alters the politics of the country, it can take decades for the country to accept another shift.  None of the recessions that have occurred since President Reagan took office in 1981 - not even the Great Recession of 2008-09 - have been severe enough to allow Americans to restore their trust in government and in government's ability to solve the country's problems.  Simply put, Ronald Reagan won the argument against big government and for "traditional values" (whatever those are), and the Democrats haven't been able to re-litigate it since.  Furthermore, the Democratic establishment, understanding this, has moved toward a more moderate positions on the issues, which is why Clinton pursued tough criminal-justice goals that caused our prison population to skyrocket by locking up people for minor offenses and why Obama choose a heath care reform policy that merely tinkered with the system and only nudged (but would not guarantee) the U.S. toward universal health coverage.
Liberals, of course, have been consistently disillusioned whenever they think they're on their way to a comeback, and you really can't be blame them for that.  But Clinton and Obama couldn't be blamed completely for not being able to reverse the conservative tide, because only extraordinary circumstances make it possible for someone to step up, lead, and change the nation's course.  The period between the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, the nation's seventh President, and the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln is a case in point.
Historian Saul Braun noted once that President Jackson's fundamental policies - small government, low tariffs, and a diminished financial sector - were so firmly in place as a result of his accession to the Presidency (he was the country's first popularly elected President, which itself was a major shift of the political landscape) that the opposition was hard-pressed to dislodge them.  For nearly a quarter century, in fact, after Jackson left office in 1837, the only way the opposition could even loosen the hold that Jackson's Democratic Party had on the executive branch, Braun pointed out, was to run for President two soldiers - William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor - who reminded the voters of Jackson.  Both Harrison and Taylor died in office, and the Vice Presidents who respectively succeeded them, John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, hardly changed the status quo.  Similarly, the Reagan era continues over a quarter century after Reagan's departure from office, while the only way the Democrats have been able to loosen the Reagan Republican hold on the White House has been to nominate two young, handsome moderates with a sense of charisma that recalls Reagan.
Jackson's political philosophy of strict adherence to the letter of the Constitution and a respect for state sovereignty allowed the country to drift apart sectionally, leading to the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln ended the age of Jackson, Braun noted, developing a strong central government and a stronger commitment to civil rights, in addition to ending slavery.  Reagan's conservatism has caused great fissures in this country, but, even though we're now moving as dangerously close to disunion as it did in 1860,  thanks to Reagan's strident conservatism, there doesn't seem to be much hope for another Lincoln (not even Bernie Sanders seems Lincolnesque) to lead us in a different direction at a time when such a leader is needed.

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