Roots of Reaganolatry

tags: Reagan

Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as an Op-Ed columnist and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Noah Smith suggests that Reagan worship reflects a misunderstanding of how the economy works — that those who idolize Reagan believe in the Green Lantern theory of presidential power, that presidents can make stuff happen, in the economy and elsewhere, though sheer force of will.

But the truth is that the cult of Reagan is much stranger and more disreputable than that. For the fact is that Reagan’s objective achievements weren’t all that great.

In terms of the economy, his record is trumped by Bill Clinton’s on every front: GDP growth, job creation, family incomes. For that matter, as Bill McBride points out, the average monthly rate of private-sector job creation under Jimmy Carter was faster than the average rate under Reagan. Carter just had the bad luck to preside over a recession at the end of his term, while Reagan’s was at the beginning.

We might also note that Reagan’s attempt to change the nature of the US welfare state was, in the light of history, a failure. Remember, he once crusaded against Medicare as a program that would destroy freedom; he came into office with the intention of dismantling Social Security. But he left with both programs intact (thanks, in part, to a big increase in payroll taxes during his time in office) — and now we have a more or less universal health insurance system.

So right-wing Reagan-worship requires a heavy dose of historical ignorance. But that’s not the only weird thing about the way today’s Republicans pledge their devotion to his legacy: Remember, Reagan was elected 35 years ago. That’s a long time: the election of 1980 is as distant from us now as the election of 1944 was when he was running. The America of Reagan’s triumph was in many ways another country — a country of still-powerful unions and bad coffee, with no internet or cell phones, in which a plurality of voters disapproved of interracial marriage. It’s quite remarkable that the right can’t find any more contemporary role models.

But Reagan has become an icon that never fades. Republicans will probably still be invoking his legacy in 2036, when Democrats will have nominated their first android — and Republicans will have nominated another white male.

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