Friday, August 21, 2009

Sean Wilentz's The Age of Reagan, Part I

I'm listening to The Age of Reagan on my Ipod.

Wilentz's political history is comprehensive - he starts with Nixon's resignation and I've now worked my way through to the early part of Reagan's first term. For each President, he examines the issues and influential players in considerable detail.

The most distinctive aspect of Wilent's writing is that he pulls no punches as to his liberal/progressive bias -- in fact he admits to it in the introduction.

I am fascinated by Wilent's account of Reagan's first couple of years in office. He was shot by John Hinckley in March and parlayed public sympathy into (1) much higher approval ratings and (2) a speech before a joint session of Congress, four weeks to the day after the assassination attempt, in which he rallied support for his legislative agenda.

Then, he worked incredibly quickly/efficiently -- notwithstanding that the House of Representatives was controlled by the Democrats -- in passing one of the most significant tax cuts in US history - the Kemp-Roth Act, which reduced marginal income tax rates on top earners 20% (over the course of several years). Key players were James Baker (his Chief of Staff), Don Regan (Treasury Secretary) and David Stockman (Director of the Office of Management and Budget).

286. The contrast with the Obama Administration's struggles to get momentum on the health care bill are dramatic. How on earth did Reagan manage to get such a huge tax cut through both houses of Congress so quickly? Did Tip O'Neill (or other Democratic leaders) take heat from the left wing for cooperating so willingly? Did the Democrats have 40 Senators, and if so was a filibuster discussed/attempted? It's almost impossible to comprehend such an ideologically-tilted piece of legislation getting through Congress so quickly.
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The next amazing part of the story is that Wall Street's reaction to the tax cut was to tank -- the Dow dropped about 20% over the course of several months. Unemployment reached 9.7% in 1982, and amidst widespread discontent Reagan backpedaled by signing a tax hike that year (James Baker actually called it the largest tax increase in human history!!!).

Wilentz, though, portrays Reagan's '82 policy shift as brilliant, as it modulated the '81 cut but nevertheless solidified trickle-down theory as the guiding principle for American government. I guess Wilentz's idea is that Reagan outsmarted the Democrats by leading them to believe he would support additional taxes in years to come.
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An excellent counterpoint is Eugene Robinson's critique (in today's Post, here) of the Democrats' (and, in particular, Obama's) seeming lack of passion and conviction in pushing health care reform.

287. This is the big question for me right now on Obama: Is he consciously remaining calm re: health care so that he slowly lets the Democrats coalesce around a bill (which won't, I don't think, end up having a public option)? Or is he actually intimidated by the scale of the bill and extent of opposition, so that he's somewhat "freezing in place" (I think someone last week used the phrase "deer in the headlights")?

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