Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wilentz - The Age of Reagan

Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York, NY: Harper, 2008.

Wilentz admits to approaching Reagan with a negative opinion, but his ultimate appraisal is that Reagan is both wrongly critiqued by liberals and wrongly loved by Conservatives. It's a fairly superficial synthesis, but one that is helpful in casting the period from 1980 to present as The Age of Reagan (although Wilentz admits that, if not for Watergate, it would have very likely been titled The Age of Nixon). Nixon consolidated the conservative South for the Republican party and appealed to a national electorate weary of the Vietnam, the Great Society, and the social upheavals of the 60s. Ford lost a narrow election to Carter, who ran successfully as an outsider. But Carter had a poor relationship with the media and Congress, and failed to succeed amidst the defeats of the 70s. Reagan attacked the New Deal, both its coalition and its apparatus, and turned the nation politically back to the right. George W Bush was seen as less an ideologue than a politician, and was never loved by the right. Clinton was hated by the right, but sought a third way through triangulation. George W. Bush proved to be a far more radical version of Reagan. Writing in 2008, I suspect that Wilentz was more approving of Reagan out of a desire to discredit Bush.

Key Quote
"In his political persona, as well as his policies, Reagan embodied a new fusion of deeply conservative politics with some of the rhetoric and even a bit of the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier... This is not to say that Reagan alone caused the long wave of conservative domination — far from it. But in American political history there have been a few leading figures, most of them presidents, who for better or worse have put their political stamp indelibly on their time. They include Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt — and Ronald Reagan.”

Douglas Brinkley - NYT
"the supposedly inflexible Reagan emerges here as the pragmatic statesman who greatly reduced the world’s nuclear stockpiles."

"The mistake many pundits and scholars have made, he asserts, is tattooing a convenient label on Reagan’s forehead, like “conservative,” “hawkish” or “pro-business.” One understands the man better, Wilentz says, by exploring the power of optimism and nostalgia. Drawing on psychological assessments of Reagan by Lou Cannon, Garry Wills and Edmund Morris, he concludes that Reaganism was never a party or a faction or a movement — it was the persona of an old-fashioned Midwesterner enveloped in the mythic tenets of Main Streetism."

Unemployment hit 9.7% in 1982, but drifted down thereafter. Still, the income gap expanded drastically under Reagan as it was a good period for the rich. Reagan claimed to be a fiscal conservative but government spending expanded drastically under his Presidency, much to the chagrin of David Stockman. Thus, Reagan's economic policies were essentially Keynesian.

Rolling back the New Deal
Reagan deregulation often consisted of putting deep conservatives in charge of administrations, such as the EPA. Early in his Presidency, many of these heads were caught in scandals. Reagan unsuccessfully tried to reform social security, welfare, and medicare.

Firing the air traffic controllers

Cold War
The idea that Reagan ended the Cold War by expanding the arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union is ridiculous. Reagan was deeply concerned with the threat of nuclear war. SDI was initiated not out of a desire to create an arms race but because of Reagan's fear of nuclear attack. He was also something of an idealist toward human nature: ex. He loved to imagine how all nations would unite if faced with an extraterrestrial threat. Far from embracing Gorbachev's reforms, the Reagan administration was suspicious of the new leader from the start, expecting him to be a Stalin-like hawk. But Gorbachev's reforms, coupled with his excellent relationship with Reagan (credit both) led to the decline of the Cold War.

Politically, the Reagan administration successfully steered the scandal so it was about supporting the Contras, something explicitly denied by Congress (twice!). The focus never was on the fact Reagan had attempted to trade arms to the Iranians for hostages (negotiating with terrorists). Reagan and Bush certainly knew more about the efforts than they admitted at the time.

Bush I
The economy submarined the political gains Bush got from Gulf War I. But he never enjoyed the love from the right Reagan had.

Suffered from attacks from the right throughout his Presidency, and disappointment from the left for his moderation. He stumbled early, notably with his cabinet appointments, especially attorney general where Janet Reno was third choice to be the first female AG. Put Hilary in charge of health care. Hilary failed to discuss plans with Congress, so when the time came to pass the proposal it lacked the support. The Insurance industry rallied against it (Harry and Louise ads). But Clinton did succeed with Welfare reform, taking credit for what might have been expected to be a Republican initiative. The 1994 midterm was a pivotal moment, as Newt Gingrich led a socially conservative Republican revolution, running a national campaign based on the Contract with America. But Newt underestimated Clinton, who successfully fought off their conservative ventures. Balancing the budget came down to a compromise, which Clinton managed to take credit for.

After Somalia, Clinton was hesitant to get involved in foreign conflicts, though he did eventually support efforts to solve the Yugoslavia crisis. He also bombed Iraq on several occasions, though he was often criticized for Wagging the Dog.

Clinton Scandal
There was nothing to Whitewater, as the first special investigator concluded early on, but Kenneth Starr investigated Clinton throughout his Presidency, egged on by conservatives. This led to Lewinsky.

Perlstein's Nixonland has a similar presence to Wilentz. Both claim one Republican President represents the turn away from the New Deal. Perlstein credits Nixon with seizing on the proper political formula, focusing on Law and Order, to capture the Silent Majority disgusted with the upheavals of the 60s. Wilentz sees the realignment delayed because of Watergate, and eventually leading to a President who was even further right of Nixon.

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