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What we talk about when we talk about Reagan

Krugman today, let me fair-use the bulk of it:

Historical narratives matter. That’s why conservatives are still writing books denouncing F.D.R. and the New Deal; they understand that the way Americans perceive bygone eras, even eras from the seemingly distant past, affects politics today.

And it’s also why the furor over Barack Obama’s praise for Ronald Reagan is not, as some think, overblown. The fact is that how we talk about the Reagan era still matters immensely for American politics.

Maybe Mr. Obama was, as his supporters insist, simply praising Reagan’s political skills. (I think he was trying to curry favor with a conservative editorial board, which did in fact endorse him.) But where in his remarks was the clear declaration that Reaganomics failed?

For it did fail. The Reagan economy was a one-hit wonder. Yes, there was a boom in the mid-1980s, as the economy recovered from a severe recession. But while the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before — and the poverty rate had actually risen.

When the inevitable recession arrived, people felt betrayed — a sense of betrayal that Mr. Clinton was able to ride into the White House.

Given that reality, what was Mr. Obama talking about?

I understand why conservatives want to rewrite history and pretend that these good things happened while a Republican was in office — or claim, implausibly, that the 1981 Reagan tax cut somehow deserves credit for positive economic developments that didn’t happen until 14 or more years had passed. (Does Richard Nixon get credit for “Morning in America”?)

But why would a self-proclaimed progressive say anything that lends credibility to this rewriting of history — particularly right now, when Reaganomics has just failed all over again?

Like Ronald Reagan, President Bush began his term in office with big tax cuts for the rich and promises that the benefits would trickle down to the middle class. Like Reagan, he also began his term with an economic slump, then claimed that the recovery from that slump proved the success of his policies.

And like Reaganomics — but more quickly — Bushonomics has ended in grief. The public mood today is as grim as it was in 1992. Wages are lagging behind inflation. Employment growth in the Bush years has been pathetic compared with job creation in the Clinton era. Even if we don’t have a formal recession — and the odds now are that we will — the optimism of the 1990s has evaporated.

This is, in short, a time when progressives ought to be driving home the idea that the right’s ideas don’t work, and never have.

It’s not just a matter of what happens in the next election. Mr. Clinton won his elections, but — as Mr. Obama correctly pointed out — he didn’t change America’s trajectory the way Reagan did. Why?

Well, I’d say that the great failure of the Clinton administration — more important even than its failure to achieve health care reform, though the two failures were closely related — was the fact that it didn’t change the narrative, a fact demonstrated by the way Republicans are still claiming to be the next Ronald Reagan.

Now progressives have been granted a second chance to argue that Reaganism is fundamentally wrong: once again, the vast majority of Americans think that the country is on the wrong track. But they won’t be able to make that argument if their political leaders, whatever they meant to convey, seem to be saying that Reagan had it right.


MLK would be rolling in his grave.

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

this little krug/bama spat is really amusing me. smack! "given that reality, what was he talking about?" soon krugman will be snarking 'what is he smoking.'


vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

Without a change in narrative, the public's constant recidivism into supporting Republican authoritarians is inevitable. The media, of course, doesn’t want to change the narrative. That’s why it’s our job, and Obama isn’t just asleep at the switch, he’s charting a course that’s 180 degrees wrong.

Anna Granfors's picture
Submitted by Anna Granfors on

what is it they say about "teh stupid" again? and why am I having to say it about purported liberals?

let's let Pitchfork pimp--er, explain, shall we?

I'm so glad I just learned how to do the "awkward turtle"...

(I parked this comment here cuz it was the closest ODS [Obama Derangement Syndrome] repository.) :)

Submitted by lambert on

Malkin invented the riff, or popularized it, and let's not confuse the brands.

Cult of personality is OK....

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Submitted by lambert on

And getting "homosexual foreigner" Sullivan in the story is prescient, given the mischief he's making in the Democratic race:

Commander Reagan told us of his romantic lifelong love affair with his wife Nancy and of his fondness for horses and Barbara Stanwyck's performance with Robert Young in "Runaway Daughter". And he explained to us his plan to shift a greater proportion of the property tax burden to lower and middle income Americans so that they too can once again feel as though they are making a valuable contribution to the American dream. He spoke of great shining cities high on hill tops and filled with shimmering durable consumer goods purchased on limitless credit; and rocket ships that fire spacebased laser beams at commie spy machines zooming wildly about in the heavens above; and he told us how he and Nancy and Barry Goldwater had each won gold medals at the summer Olympic games in Innsbruck Austria in 1954, soundly defeating the Soviet gymnastics team once and for all and for evermore. Uh, I don't think that last part was entirely accurate, but who cares, he was such a nice guy, and so optimistic. Does it really matter if any of it really happened exactly like that or not? No, I don't think it does, because, he was soooo optimistic. And he could tell a funny joke and then just fall asleep on a dime. He had complete command of the world around him and everyone in it. Especially me. And he was sooo optimistic. I never did learn if he was the one who thwacked me in the coinkidink with his red pool noodle that night but I like to think he was. Even if I have to pretend.


Coffee just came out of my nose.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Anna Granfors's picture
Submitted by Anna Granfors on

I use it only in the most terminally ironic way, of course. but you're right: Malkin deserves no acknowledgement at all for *anything*, except of course for that wonderful freeze frame from Maher's show that TBogg popularized where she looks, um, deranged.

Submitted by lambert on

... the Catholic schoolgirl fetish outfit with the pom-poms.

Caused a lot of good men's heads to explode, I'm tellin ya.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

leah's picture
Submitted by leah on

Wow, I can't believe that I had actually forgotten both of these Reagan memoryoirs...they need their own name...beyond parody...pop medium used as truth telling...

Love that you got in the whole taxpayer revolts on the state level - true, started in the seventies, but they came out of the conservative movement and Reagan built on them...

Used to be that the Feds would help bail out states during recessions, so that things like maintenance of intrastate highways, for instance, would continue to one even thinks about that these days...

this subprime mess could lead to another of these state level revolts, when states try and find the money to keep minimal levels of government going with reduced property tax receipts...

Submitted by lambert on

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Submitted by lambert on

I can't give registered users the power to delete without also giving them other powers they should not have, the way things are set up now.

But you can always edit the comment to be something else entirely, which is as good as deleting it.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.