A couple of years ago, PBS released a two-part “American Experience” documentary on Ronald Reagan. It was far from perfect, but it was much, much better than it could have been. Reagan essentially got the grudging credit he deserved for the big stuff: renewing America’s confidence, ending the Cold War, restarting the economy. Moreover, the filmmakers were hard-pressed to depict Reagan as anything other than charming and decent and somehow larger than life. Again, as a former documentary maker, I can tell you it wasn’t the film I would have made (which probably would have involved a lot of shots of clouds parting as Reagan arrived to save the day, and the editorial board of The Nation loading up on Depends adult diapers), but it was shocking nonetheless how fair it was.
I bring this up because at the end of the film, the producers obviously had to have their “but at what price?” moment. Sure, Western Civilization was saved, America was in the saddle again and all that, but was it worth the costs? This was left to Tony Lewis of the New York Times. I’m paraphrasing because that’s what I do when I don’t have the actual text, but he said something like “We paid a terrible price for Reagan’s accomplishments. Specifically, in the form of the crushing budget deficits that will cripple the ability of administrations to govern for decades to come.” That was it. Crushing deficits. I remember it because I thought it was such a lame criticism.
Of course, this was, and probably still is, the media’s standard criticism of Reagan. “Only now are we coming to realize the cost of Mr. Reagan’s laissez-faire,” wrote CBS’s Terence Smith in the New York Times about a decade ago. “If we don’t find some way to raise new revenues… we’re going to continue to add to the national deficit, we’re going to continue to cause this country to head toward an economic abyss,” whined Sam Donaldson. “The borrow-and-spend policies that Ronald Reagan presided over have bequeathed to his chosen successor a down-sized presidency devoid of the resources to address long neglected domestic problems,” wrote Time reporters Michael Duffy and Richard Hornik during the 1988 election. And so on.
Okay, so here’s the point. There is almost nothing left to criticize Reagan for. If all PBS could come up with were the crippling deficits of the Reagan years, then Reagan is in the clear. Reagan won the Cold War. So-called “Star Wars” is now essentially a bipartisan issue, with the only major differences being over implementation. Reagan’s supposed bashing of welfare recipients was far less draconian than what Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress did: end it.
Still, it’s about time to settle this issue. The Left concedes that the deficits paid for an arms buildup, a tax cut, and Star Wars. They say this came at the expense of all sorts of vital domestic needs. Well, first of all, spending on low-income citizens went up under Reagan. The only thing Reagan ever cut by way of money for the poor was the rate of growth of entitlement programs. And yet this was supposed to be the equivalent of throwing Tiny Tim to the wolves.
Regardless, just one decade after Reagan left office the federal government is awash in money. Official estimates of budget surpluses are leaping into the trillions. It is conceivable that the Federal government will be debt free in another decade.
So: Either the deficits were never that big a deal in the first place, economically speaking, or they were. Additionally, either the current deficit-erasing expansion can be credited to Reagan or to Clinton (as far as credit should ever go to a president). I’m of the view that they were no big deal, and that Reagan deserves credit for getting rid of them. But let’s take the other position. The deficits were terrible and evil, and Clinton deserves credit for getting rid of them. Call it the Paul Begala school.
Weren’t they worth it?
It was the Left that thought the specter of the atomic bomb was so fearsome that it was doing psychological damage to my generation. It was the nuclear surrender, er, I mean the Nuclear Freeze movement that felt it was so important for the Cold War to end that we should accommodate almost any evil. “I hope the Russians love their children too,” fretted Sting. Civilization, nay, life on Earth was in balance.
So, with those stakes in mind, wouldn’t a decade, let alone a century, of deficits be worth it? Wouldn’t it make sense that hospitals be left un-built and cancer cures remain undiscovered? Children could go hungry and puppies could be left without a home if it meant saving us from nuclear apocalypse. No?
When Lewis et al. ask, “But at what price?” they are suggesting that somehow ending the Cold War wasn’t worth it (let alone suggesting that standing up to totalitarian evil wasn’t worthwhile by itself). Bryant Gumbel told an economist on the Today show, “You claim the debt problem actually began with Lyndon Johnson.…But he was fighting the Vietnam War and that was most of his problem?.…So he had a good reason.” Yes, Mr. Gumbel; and fighting the Vietnam War was a battle in the same fight Reagan won.
Sticking to the Begala school: Even if these terrible deficits were so crippling, imagine our good fortune that we could be blessed with a President like Bill Clinton who could get rid of them. Surely, if in 1987 we were to approach committed Sane Freezers like George Stephanopoulos and say, “Is it worth ending the nuclear menace if it means that the next Democratic president will have to be restrained in his domestic agenda?” Hopefully even George would have said, “Yes, it’s worth it.”
But we know that the deficits were not constraining, let alone crippling. Is Paul Begala willing to say that the Clinton legacy is purely a green-eyeshade legacy? Did he do nothing but sock away cash to pay off the Reagan deficits?
Regardless, I think the Left realizes that Reagan will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century and Bill Clinton will be that guy with the pants problem who confirmed the Reagan legacy the way Eisenhower confirmed the New Deal. Will there be talk a decade from now of Clinton joining Mount Rushmore? Will there be a dash to name the next big building or an airport after Bill Clinton? Doubtful. Indeed, that is the real point of agitprop like NBC’s West Wing or Rob Reiner’s American President — not to rehabilitate Clinton’s legacy, but to fantasize about what a liberal Reagan would be like. Alas, our movie star was in the real West Wing, theirs will only be in reruns.
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