Friday, August 27, 2010

Reagan and the Libertarians

In 1975, Governor Ronald Reagan gave an interview with Reason magazine, in which he discussed his relationship with libertarianism, and his beliefs about the role of government:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism...Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals.
Reason approached Reagan for his recent espousal of conservative libertarianism, and it appears that Reagan was interested in reaching out to this idiosyncratic and youthful branch of the right wing - potentially part of the coalition that would bring him the 1976 GOP nomination. The interviewer brought him round to the subject of the Libertarian Party and third parties in general:
Well, third parties have been notoriously unsuccessful; they usually wind up dividing the very people that should be united. And then we elect the wrong kind–the side we’re out to defeat wins...I’d like to see the Libertarian Party...maybe come to this remnant of the Republican Party which is basically conservative in its thinking...and be able to say to them, OK we’re not saying to you give up what you’re doing, but, can’t we find a common meeting ground in order at least to defeat first of all those who are doing what they’re doing to us (and this present Congress is an example)?
If Reagan had any success in courting libertarians in 1975/6, it did not win him the nomination. Interestingly, in 1980, the Libertarian Party's Ed Clark, running as a peace candidate, received the greatest proportion of votes the party has ever won in a presidential election. Though he is the president closest to libertarian philosophy in modern times, his limited approach and commitment to social conservatism separated him from its diehard adherents.

This week, the Libertarian Party is looking back on the Reagan Presidency and considering its mythic relavence in the contemporary movement. LNC Director Wes Benedict asked party members in his "Monday Message", "How to Handle Ronald Reagan?":
As the 2010 election approaches, a lot of Republican politicians are trying to posture as government-cutters, and they often hold up Ronald Reagan as an example. But although Reagan often talked about supporting smaller government, most Libertarians know that in practice he did exactly the opposite...Some polls show Reagan is reasonably well-respected these days. I think the positive reactions are often based on misconceptions, and that brings up an interesting point: how should Libertarians deal with the Ronald Reagan myth?
The current results of the attached poll show that of 1,926 voters:
  • 9% say Don't bring it up, to avoid offending his fans.
  • 7% say It's not a myth. Reagan really did shrink government.
  • 64% say Libertarians should point out that Reagan grew government.
  • 4% say Blame government growth in the 1980s on everyone except Reagan.
Libertarianism is again a vocal, influential wing of the populist conservative movement. There is, however, an unwillingness to embrace its foremost icon for the sake of coalition - to elevate a unifying myth over debate and poitical principle.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Repositories of Greatness

In the closing pages to her memoir/hagiography When Character Was King, Peggy Noonan expressed the importance of the tale of Ronald Reagan. It had to be told so that America's children would learn it, internalise it, and carry it forward to America's future:
He'd like knowing that when the long war is over our kids will have learned something unforgettable that each generation must relearn, and make new again, as it lives on through history...The little bodies of children are the repositories of the greatness of a future age. And they must be encouraged, must eat from the tales of those who've gone before, and brandished their swords, and slayed dragons.
Noonan will be glad to know that some of those little bodies now form the National Youth Leadership Committee of the Reagan Centennial. These representatives of "America's next generation of leaders" include celebrities, athletes, beauty queens, students and servicemen and are chaired by a Jonas Brother and an American Idol winner.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Deformed Republicanism

A few days ago, I suggested that former members of the Reagan administration were dull and partisan in their public comments. This cannot be said of David Stockman, Reagan's first director of the Office of Managment and Budget, who on Saturday appeared in the New York Times declaiming the "Four Deformations of the Apocaypse".

Stockman, though in many ways a committed ideologue, has never been reliably on message. Early on in Reagan's presidency, he risked his job by talking frankly to the Atlantic about the politically chaotic and murky process of budget cutting, downplaying the administration's legislatvie victories:
"I don't believe too much in the momentum theory any more," he said. "I believe in institutional inertia. Two months of response can't beat fifteen years of political infrastructure. I'm talking about K Street and all of the interest groups in this town, the community of interest groups. We sort of stunned it, but it just went underground for the winter. It will be back ... Can we win? A lot of it depends on events and luck. If we got some bad luck, a flareup in the Middle East, a scandal, it could all fall apart."
Stockman resigned in 1985, frustrated with entrenched political interests and exploding deficits, and declaring the failure of the Reagan Revolution. In his NYT column, which likely outlines the premises of his upcoming book on the financial crisis, Stockman reviews the past forty years of American economic history and castigates the Republican Party for the betrayal of principle in its "recycled Keynesianism" and its submission to the "primordial forces" of the "welfare state and the warfare state". The GOP takes the blame for four destructive changes: removing the gold standard, unleashing defecits, expanding the financial sector, and hollowing out the American economy. Their current political committment to retaining the Bush tax cuts is but a symptom of their irresponsibility and irrelevance. I doubt Stockman weilds much influence in the party any more, but any professed conservative hoping make office and make impact should probably pay attention to his ideas, and certainly make a study of his career.