The always provocative and often insightful Jonathan Rauch uses a review of Patrick Allitt’s new book The Conservatives to launch an attack on the “zombie party,” by which he means both conservatives and Republicans. I’ll have my own review of Allitt’s book appearing soon in That Other Magazine, but what concerns me here is Rauch’s arguments about Reagan (sorry, I can’t help myself having spent so much time on this project), which have a germ of truth but don’t get the matter correct. Rauch says:
A second myth misunderstands Reagan, reducing him to a far less subtle figure than he was. An admirer of FDR and the New Deal, he had no interest in dismantling the welfare state. He never tried to do that. He raised taxes as both governor and president, and in 1983 he shored up Social Security, thus demonstrating, as he proclaimed, “for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security.”
To be sure, there is a problematic diary entry from Reagan in 1982 where Reagan asserts:
The press is trying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them that I voted for FDR four times. I’m trying to undo the “Great Society.” It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led us to our present mess.
The problem with this is that Reagan had been complaining about big-government liberalism and the welfare state for at least a decade before LBJ’s Great Society commenced. This is a somewhat selective recollection on Reagan’s part, although it is partly accurate as a description of his budgetary objectives in 1982. However, it is not true that he celebrated “shoring up” Social Security. He had his head handed to him in the spring of 1981 when he proposed delaying COLAs and reducing early retirement benefits. He had to be forcefully talked out of a TV address in the fall of 1981 aimed at cutting Social Security, and that’s when he punted to the Greenspan commission. When the Greenspan commission endorsed tax hikes to save the system in is present form, Reagan wrote in his diary that “I’m afraid our bi-partisan commission has failed us.” He was clearly hoping for more serious reform. I’ve heard Rauch point out that Reagan punted again in 1985 when the GOP Senate voted narrowly for a Social Security cut; true — but Reagan felt he had to honor a 1984 campaign promise, made at a moment of weakness, not to touch Social Security, and moreover feared he was walking into a Democratic campaign trap. (And sure enough, Dems attacked Republicans lustily in the 1986 election over Social Security.)
The point is, Rauch’s unstated theme that Reagan was something of a New Deal double agent is problematic. Don’t forget, as I’ve argued on this page before, Reagan’s constant call for constitutional amendments to curtail the growth of government. That would seem to tip the scales in my mind.
This brings up Rauch’s much more dubious argument that conservatives greeted Charles Murray’s argument for overhauling the welfare state with a constitutional amendment with “hostility and indifference.” I’m not sure where Jonathan was when the book was receiving rave reviews in NR and the Weekly Standard, and although it is true that GOP office holders have shown no imagination for picking up the idea and running with it, that was true of Murray’s first big book, Losing Ground. In fact, here Rauch misses a great story. Losing Ground was greeted in the Reagan White House (by everyone except Reagan himself and one or two champions such as Michael Horowitz) with a typical “not invented here” mentality, but of course we all know how that story played out.
Seems to me Jonathan has out-clevered himself here by being just a bit sloppy.