Politics & Policy

The Blandification of Ronald Reagan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the April 6, 1984, issue of National Review.

You know the one about fighting for Ronald Reagan’s soul? Well there are those of us who have been pretty serene on the subject, confident that the President can resist the Faustian bid (“Give me four more years in the White House, Satan, and thereafter you may do as you like with my soul”). But when the Devil is a blatant as David Gergen was last week, the faithful need to come in with holy-water sprinklers.

Now, David Gergen was the Director of Communications at the White House for several years before pulling out a few months ago to return to private life. You will not be surprised to learn that he thinks Mr. Reagan needs to bring “new energy and ideas into a second term.” You will not be surprised that new ideas always, but always, involve more social spending at home together with more regulation; and, abroad, more appeasement.

Mr. Gergen refers to the “hard-core conservatives” who back Mr. Reagan and who will destroy him, if he follows their counsel. What is the kind of thing a hard-core conservative believes in? “They are willing to support tax simplification, but only if there is no increase in the tax burden.”

What is so hard-core about that? The overwhelming majority of the people of California, voting yes on Proposition 13, voted to limit taxes on real property to 1 per cent. Hard-core? We are paying 39 per cent of the GNP in America–39 per cent of all the goods and services produced by rich and poor alike–to sustain government. Does it really require hard-corism to consider 39 per cent an excessive levy?

Mr. Gergen says that the hard-corites desire that Mr. Reagan get on with his social agenda, including school prayer, tuition tax credits, and anti-crime mesures. “But is this the agenda that really best serves Ronald Reagan?” If the Reagan legacy is “to be positive”? The planted axiom in the formulation demands that the answer should be no.

Why “no”? i say “yes.” I wish the children in public schools to be free to pray for the exorcism of the Soviet Union as well as for the englightment of Mr. Gergen, and I do not see why that is hard-core. It may be right, m ay be wrong; but if hard-core is measured by the tenacity with which a group of voters desires, for instance, that the crime rate should diminish, it is no more hard-core to desire progress in a social agenda than to desire, as the hard-core people did twenty years ago, progress in the matter of civil rights. Then Mr. Gergen goes one better: “The Administration in the second term must either raise taxes and stretch out defense increases or face an end to recovery.” Now, in the first place, these are not exclusive alternatives. In the secon dplace, more taxes could be raised by flat-tax revisions, such as have been recommended by hard-core Demoracts Senator Bradley, and Mr. Gephardt–and George McGovern.

But the zinger is the foreign-policy plank for the New Reagan. You’ve guessed it? right. He must turn his “creative energies to building a different, closer relationship with Moscow.” Why not a “Soviet specialist” to advise him? Say, Richard Barnet from the Institute for Policy Studies. Can’t “more heavyweight strategic thinkers be found to come into the Administration in a second term”? Somebody like, oh, Herbert Scoville? You will notice that the softer you are, in that world, the heavier you are. Churchill would have been such a lightweight he’d have floated.

What Mr. Gergen has in mind for President Reagan’s second term is that he should ignore conservative thought domestically and, abroad, revise weakward our policy of resistance to Soviet enroachment. Not bad, this agenda, for one man. It calls merely for undoing the Federalist Papers, and unliving Lenin. And progressing into history with the force and personality of a vanilla milkshake.

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