Rick Perlstein: Reagan's Attacks On Carter's Embrace of "Big Government" Were B.S.

Roundup: Talking About History

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

...Here's the problem: Even if Obamaism works on its own terms – that is, if [Andrew] Sullivan is right that Obama’s presidency is precisely on course – it can't stop Republicans from wrecking the country. Instead, it may end up abetting them.

To understand why, let's look at Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama has famously cited him as a role model for how transformative a president can be. Well, what did he transform, and how did he do it? Here's how: He planted an ideological flag. From the start, he relentlessly identified America's malaise with a villain, one that had a name, or two names – liberalism, the Democratic Party – and a face – that of James Earl Carter. Reagan's argument was, on its face, absurd. For all Carter's stumbles as president, the economic crisis he inherited had been incubated under two Republican presidents, Nixon and Ford (see this historical masterpiece for an account of Nixon's role in wrecking the economy), and via a war in Vietnam that Reagan had supported and celebrated. What's more, to arrest the economy's slide, Jimmy Carter did something rather heroic and self-sacrificing, well summarized here: He appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve chairman with a mandate to squeeze the money supply, which induced the recession that helped defeat Carter – as Carter knew it might – but which also slayed the inflation dragon and, by 1983-84, long after Carter had lost to Reagan, saved the economy.

In office, Reagan, on the level of policy, endorsed Carter's economics by reappointing Volcker. But on the level of politics, in one of the greatest acts of broad-gauged mendacity in presidential history, he blamed Carter for the economic failure, tied that failure to liberal ideology and its supposed embrace of "big government" (Carter in fact took on big government), and gave conservatism credit for every success. Deregulation and supply-side tax-cuts brought us "morning in America," he said. That was bullshit, but it won him a reelection landslide against Walter Mondale, Carter's VP, whom he labeled  "Vice President Malaise."

What's the lesson? It’s not that you have to lie – Republicans had to do that to win, but Democrats don't. No, Democrats, in 2009, could simply have told the truth, and called it hell. The truth was this: For the first few years of this new century, America had ventured upon a natural experiment not attempted since the 1920s – governing the country with conservatives in control of all three branches of government. The result, of course, was – smoking ruins. Everybody knew it. A majority of Americans was receptive to "liberal solutions," and even conservatives knew it – which was why, after Obama delivered his February 24, 2009 speech defending the stimulus that, as I noted last week, got a 92 percent approval rating, and Bobby Jindal responded to it by excoriating the $140 million in stimulus spending "for something called 'volcano' monitoring," David Brooks said his "stale, government-is-the-problem, you can't trust the government" rhetoric was "a disaster for the Republican Party.”...

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