Paul Ryan doesn’t care for “politics or politicians.” He says so in his recent book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea. He prefers the ordinary folks of his childhood in small-town Wisconsin. It must have been sheer selflessness that propelled him into Congress at age 28. As chairman of the House Budget Committee (and the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2012, who is eyeing 2016), Ryan has to deal with politicians all day long. Yuck!
But there is one politician who escapes Ryan’s censure: “The one exception was Ronald Reagan. I knew about him mostly because my dad thought his story was so inspiring.… An Irish guy who … had overcome a childhood of modest means and adversity and become president of the United States.” Ryan Sr. “would often see Reagan on the news and nod quietly, approvingly.”
Things were pretty dire when Reagan took office back in 1981, as Ryan remembers it. But Reagan “was not defeated or deterred. Instead, he proposed a plan to get America back on track.”
Well, yes, in his speech to a joint session of Congress shortly after becoming president, Reagan presented his “plan”—a reasonably detailed discussion of proposed tax cuts and spending cuts, pursuant to his vision of smaller government. The thing is, almost none of these changes ever happened. The tax cuts went through in 1981 but were partially repealed in 1982. In his “plan,” Reagan promised to cut two Cabinet departments (Energy and Education). Instead he added one (Veterans Affairs, now the government’s second-largest). Ryan chooses to remember the Reagan of 1981, when anything was possible. This allows him to take Reagan’s promises as some kind of reality. Thirty-four years down the road, it’s too late for that.
If you’re thinking of running for president, you need to have a book. I don’t mean own one—I mean write one. Or at least pretend to do so. You don’t actually have to write the book, as long as your name is on the cover as if you did. The contents don’t matter much. They can be your “vision”—lifted in whole or in part from think-tank research on the Web. They can be your life story. If you love your wife or husband, mention that here. Ditto if you’ve ever overcome adversity of any kind. Do you like hunting? Great! Got any photos of you and an animal carcass?
But the indispensable ingredient of a campaign book, if you are a Republican, is Ronald Reagan. Somewhere in the book, you must invoke the memory of our 40th president and say that we should return to his values of small government, low taxes, self-reliance, and so on. I’m sorry, it’s a rule. (Even Arianna has to obey. “But I am not a Republican, darling,” she protested. “This is outrageous—I haven’t been a Republican for over a decade and am not scheduled to become one again, at least for the moment.”)
You can usually get a Republican to admit, if you beat him or her with a stick, that Reagan’s actual performance in office was a bit of a disappointment. But that, you see, is because the Democrats were so vicious in opposing Reagan’s policies. What you cannot get many Republicans to admit is that the entire Reaganite golden age is a fantasy—even if they really think so. Why burst the bubble?
What can people possibly mean when they say they want America to “return” to being a country ruled by the values of Ronald Reagan? When was this blissful time when thrift and hard work were rewarded and the government knew its place? Certainly not when Reagan was actually president. Under President Reagan (1981–89), the size of the federal government increased by any measure. Executive-branch civilian employment, which covers almost everything except the uniformed military and the Postal Service, was 2.109 million in 1981 and 2.129 million in 1989. Total federal-government employment rose during this period from 4.9 million to 5.3 million.
I could go on. Well, why not? Reagan inherited a federal budget of $599 billion in revenue, $678 billion in spending, and a deficit of $79 billion. He left office with a federal budget of $909 billion in revenue, a little less than $1.1 trillion in spending, and a deficit of $155 billion.
If you’re looking for a good bureaucracy slasher, try Bill Clinton. In his eight years, the size of the executive-branch workforce dropped more than 10 percent, from 2.9 million to 2.6 million. Plus, Clinton has got a better “overcoming adversity” story than anyone was able to concoct for Reagan. Reagan’s life, like his disposition, was overwhelmingly sunny. He grew up middle-class in the Midwest, enjoyed relatively quick success in Hollywood, moved into politics, and triumphed there too. Clinton had a Southern Gothic upbringing—he famously had to stop his stepfather from beating his mother. Nothing that dramatic on Reagan’s résumé.
In his book A Simple Government, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (who won the door prize in the 2008 election: his own TV show) praised Reagan’s mastery of the economy and the federal budget: “When President Reagan cut the top [income tax] rate from 70% to 28%, revenues went from $517 billion in 1980 to over a trillion in 1990. When the Reagan tax cuts took effect in 1983, real growth (not just inflationary growth) jumped 7.5% in 1983 and 5.5% in 1984 after no growth in 1981 and 1982. Our GDP grew by a third during Reagan’s two terms.”
Well, yes and no (but mostly no). Reagan wasn’t president for 10 years (it just seemed that way). Inflation alone in Reagan’s eight years would have raised the value of $599 billion of revenue to $780 billion, even if the real economy had flatlined. It’s true that the G.D.P. grew by a third during Reagan’s two terms. In the two terms that followed (George Bush and Clinton I), it rose by nearly as much, and in Clinton’s last term it soared.
The notion that Reagan “had overcome a childhood of modest means and adversity” is Ryan’s way of paying obeisance while avoiding the facts. Huckabee’s strategy for accomplishing the same thing is to confuse the issue with random statistics that don’t even match those of the Government Accountability Office. Texas governor Rick Perry tries a third approach. He concedes that Reagan deserves part of the blame for repeated Republican failures to live up to their promises. Nevertheless, he maintains inhis recent book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington, that Reagan “inspired a generation of Americans—including me—to remember the rugged individualism and self-determination that made this country great.” In what way, exactly, did Reagan demonstrate “rugged individualism” (except by having his picture taken on a horse)? Paul Ryan says that “we loved President Reagan … because he was one of us.” Ryan never says exactly who “us” is. But if words have meaning at all, it sounds like the opposite of rugged individualism.
But didn’t Reagan save us from Communism? We can argue about that (I’ll take the “no” side). But he passed up all sorts of military opportunities to which his successors of both parties have succumbed. The only war he started was the quickie war in Grenada. In that sense, the Reagan administration was a golden age of peace.
If it’s Hillary Clinton versus Rand Paul in 2016, it will be a Democratic hawk versus a Republican dove—a complete reversal of the natural order of things since World War II. Paul stands accused of trying to distance himself from some of the nuttier views of his father, the Libertarian Godfather, Ron Paul. However, Rand let Ron write the foreword to his recent book, Government Bullies, a collection of horror stories about loutish behavior by government agencies. Like many journalists, I find Rand Paul oddly appealing. It’s mainly because he’s something new in the tired stew of the 2016 campaign so far. But it’s also partly that he can’t hide his frustration—a trait that he shares with his father (and that is characteristic of libertarians in general), commonly exhibited when what he and they regard as obviously sensible opinions and proposals are challenged.
I’d bet that both Pauls, Ron and Rand, hold Ronald Reagan in contempt for having squandered a historic opportunity to do all sorts of unattractive libertarian things. But rules are rules: the first two words in Rand Paul’s book are “Ronald Reagan.” Right after the foreword by his dad.