Mike Kueber's Blog

September 18, 2010

A Patriot’s History of the Reagan-Clinton years

Earlier this week, I finished reading A Patriot’s History of the United States.  Like finishing all enjoyable books, finishing this book left me with a feeling like I had lost a friend or fellow traveler.  I am grateful for his company and his memory will stay with me for a while, but I will push on without him. 

As I indicated in my recent Vietnam post, the authors’ conservative politics clearly manifested itself when they started describing the United States history that they had personally observed – i.e., the ‘60s.  Their politics became more discernable, even jarring, with their discussion of the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

According to the authors, Ronald Wilson Reagan was a savior.  Although they clearly admired Richard Nixon, they conceded that his presidency and the failed presidencies’ of Ford and Carter left America staring into an abyss – “On every front, the United States seemed in decline.  Economically, socially, and in international relations, by 1980 America was in retreat.  Yet at this point of weakness, the nation stood on the edge of its greatest resurgence since the months following Doolittle’s bombing of Tokyo.  The turnaround began with the upheaval within the Republican Party

The authors believed that the resurgence started with the Republican Party returning to its conservative Goldwater roots.  Although they didn’t use the term RINO (Republican in name only), they clearly felt that way about Nixon, Ford, and Rockefeller.  The authors called them “the blue-hair wing of the country-club GOP.”  You can almost sense the authors’ hero-worship of Reagan when they wrote:

Then onto the scene came a sixty-nine-year-old former actor, Goldwaterite, and governor of California – Ronald Wilson Reagan.  At one time a New Deal Democrat who had voted four times for FDR, Reagan was fond of saying he “didn’t leave the Democratic Party; it left me.”  Reagan contended the liberals of the 1970’s had abandoned the principles of John Kennedy and Harry Truman, and that those principles – anticommunism, a growing economy for middle-class-Americans, and the rule of law – were more in line with the post-Nixon Republican Party.

After telling the Gipper story, the authors revealingly took to occasionally using that term of affection throughout the book.  Other over-the-top statements included the following:

  • Never as overtly religious as Coolidge before him or George W. Bush after him, Reagan’s moral sense was acute.
  • Branded by his opponents as an extremist and an anticommunist zealot, Reagan in fact practiced the art of compromise, comparing success in politics to a batting average.
  • The debates made the incumbent look like a sincere by naïve child arguing with a wise uncle.
  • The Gipper accomplished this [replacing malaise with can-do optimism] by refusing to engage in Beltway battles with reporters or even Democrats on a personal basis.
  • Criticized as a hands-off president, he in fact was a master delegator….  This left Reagan free to do the strategic thinking and galvanize public opinion. 
  • His grasp of the details of government… shows that in one-on-one meetings over the details of tax cuts, defense, and other issues, Reagan has mastered the important specifics.
  • [Despite the recession in 1981-1982] Reagan knew in his soul that the tax cuts would work.
  • Yet despite oceans of new money and Reagan’s foot constantly on the brake, government continued to spend more than it took in.

By way of contrast, the authors made the following comments about Bill Clinton:

  • For one thing, he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.
  • Clinton’s flagrant disregard of traditional morals outraged large segments of the public.
  • Understanding the Clinton presidency requires an appreciation for the symbiotic relationship between Bill Clinton and his aggressive wife, Hillary….  Her personal demeanor, however, was abrasive and irritating and doused any hopes she had of winning a political seat on her own early in her life.  When she met Clinton at Yale, he seemed a perfect fit.  He was gregarious, smart, and charismatic, but not particularly deep.  A sponge for detail, Clinton lacked a consistent ideology upon which to hang his facts.  This was the yin to Hillary Rodham’s yang; the driven ideologue Hillary ran her husband’s campaigns, directed and organized his staff, and controlled his appearances.
  • Clinton had invoked quotas on nearly every cabinet position, regardless of competence.
  • Ever attuned to image and style, Clinton early in his presidency had suddenly begun attending church regularly.

The authors saw Reagan’s greatest accomplishment as the resurrection of the American economy, and this was accomplished primarily through deregulation and the 30% tax cuts in the Economic Recovery Act of 1981.  This lowered the top tax rate from 70% to 50%.  The Act also lowered the capital-gain tax from 28% to 20%.  In international affairs, “Reagan dealt with foreign usurpers quickly and decisively.”  More importantly, he developed the Reagan doctrine – i.e., instead of containing the Soviet Union, American should actively attempt to roll it back.  Among Reagan’s memorable quotes – “Marxism-Leninism would be tossed on the ash heap of history like all other forms of tyranny that preceded it,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  The Soviet Union finally collapsed during Bush-41’s term, but Reagan was the proximate cause.

Bill Clinton, however, did little more than coast on Reagan’s economic coattails.  Reagan’s tax cuts and deregulation caused the booming American economy for which Clinton claimed credit, and Reagan’s defeat of the Soviet Union enabled Clinton to cut military spending significantly.  Clinton’s two policy successes – NAFTA and welfare reform – were enacted because of Republican support and despite significant Democratic opposition.  Clinton’s conduct with international affairs was characterized as Missions Undefined – “Having avoided the military draft during the Vietnam era, President Clinton committed more troops to combat situations than any peacetime president in American history….  Handshake agreements with photo opportunities… played perfectly to Clinton’s own inclination for quick fixes abroad….  Another figure, whom the Clinton administration totally ignored, actually posed a more immediate threat.  Osama bin Laden….”  Clinton’s failure in foreign affairs manifested themselves for Bush-43 shortly after Clinton left office.  And, of course, the authors provided a detailed description of Clinton’s conduct that resulted in him being impeached.

Between Reagan and Clinton, there were four years of George H.W. Bush (a/k/a Bush-41), and the authors made a great insight to explain his failure to get re-elected:

  • Although Bush didn’t believe in supply-side economics and had called it voodoo-economics when he ran against Reagan in 1980, he had no choice in 1988 but to run on Reagan’s record.  “This proved to be a great mistake: by lashing himself to a mast that he had no real faith in, his convention pledge – ‘Read My Lips!  No New Taxes’ – would come back to haunt him.”

Because of his convention pledge, Bush-41 lost the presidency in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

To summarize — if the authors thought Reagan walked on water, it would be accurate to say they didn’t think Clinton deserved to carry Reagan’s water bucket.