Ronald Reagan came to office with his now-legendary sunny optimism, but he also brought with him something else: the beginnings of the end of civility in modern politics. It was Reagan who began the trend of making "liberal" a bad word. And it was Reagan who created the now-snowballing legacy of the freeloader culture: Taxes can always be cut, government can always can be shrunk, and there's never any need to worry about who pays the bills--someone will take care of that later.
Even now, it comes out of the mouth of no lesser a light than Vice President Dick Cheney. In his book The Price of Loyalty, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill quotes Cheney telling him matter of factly that "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." Spend and cut, spend and cut, and let someone else worry about the trillion-dollar deficits.
Twenty years ago, I was just out of the military, a college freshman at the University of Maryland, and astounded at the die-hard allegiance for Reagan on the College Park campus. Only a few of us, it seemed--mostly minorities, women, gays, and lesbians--saw, through the "Morning in America" haze, what Reagan really wanted to do. If it wasn't trying to push the Social Security benefit age past the average life expectancy of the black male, it was trying to get rid of other New Deal mainstays like Medicare altogether, a goal of the right wing for years. Walter Mondale's great moment in the 1984 debates came when Reagan tried that old "there you go again" line on him.
Mondale: Mr. President, you said, "There you go again," right? Remember the last time you said that?
Mondale: You said it when President Carter said that you were going to cut Medicare. And you said, "Oh no, there you go again," Mr. President. And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare, and so when you say, "There you go again," people remember this, you know. And people remember that you signed the biggest tax increase in the history of California, and the biggest tax increase in the history of the United States, and what are you going to do? You've got a $260 billion deficit. You can't wish it away. You won't slow defense spending--you refuse to do that.
Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, admitted years later that so-called "supply-side economics" were purely a sop to bring down the top tax rate--the rate paid by the wealthiest Americans. Does that sound familiar now? What about simple platitudes woven together to create a gauzy archetype of a president or the blatant assertion that a president "won a war"?
If Reagan won the Cold War--an iffy presumption at best--it is only because he spent the Soviet Union to death, and it took almost a decade to climb out of the financial hole he put us in. Even fervent anti-Communist Richard Nixon was skeptical about claims that Reagan won the Cold War; in the 1996 book Nixon Off the Record, he told his aide Monica Crowley, "Communism would have collapsed anyway." Yet again, we have another president who is balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and needy, who has cut taxes on the wealthy, who is trying to wrap himself in the mantle of war, and whose followers are trying to turn him into a "great man." And once again, like 20 years ago, it is often minorities and women and gays and lesbians who see through the smoke with disgust.
Sadder still, Reagan turned a deaf ear to the scourge of AIDS. Some reports show that as many as 60,000 people died between the discovery of the disease in 1981 and when Reagan first made public mention of it in 1987. In the president's authorized biography by Edmund Morris, 1999's Dutch, Reagan suggests, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague" on gays because "illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."
The lessons the right learned in the '80s are being put to full use now, only in much more effective ways. There is a full-time cable network (Fox News) devoted to distributing the Republican line: Reagan's imagemaker Michael Deaver can only imagine what he would have been able to do with such a tool. Reagan's tendency never to apologize or admit mistakes is an unspoken credo of the 43rd president. And once again, the term "liberal" is something no politician has the nerve to embrace.
So remember you well the 40th president of the United States. When you see the "loyal opposition" called traitors, when you see the rich get richer and the poor poorer, when you see money for guns but not for butter, and a man who claims the mantle of a war hero--either in movies or on the deck of an aircraft carrier--think of Ronald Reagan.
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