° Reagan Assignment Page
° Modern Presidency - Reagan links
° Speeches of Ronald Reagan
Russell D. Renka
Southeast Missouri State University
UI320--The Modern Presidency
April 13, 2010
II. The 'Teflon presidency' myth
III. Reagan the conservative
IV. Going Public
V. Reagan and the Congress
VI. What Should A President Know? The Administrative Reagan Presidency
VII. Cold War and the Fall of Communism
VIII. Conclusion: Reagan and FDR
I. Introduction Top; Next Down
Ronald Reagan had an enormous impact on American political life. He served two terms in the 1980s and made many conservative ideals into policy. He became the iconic leader of a major party and a conservative ideological movement. His passing in June 2004 was marked by elaborate observances and funeral elegies. He remains first in the hearts of a host of website devotees. In 2007 and 2008 the Republicans desperately sought another conservative standard-bearer to invoke his name and restore his dominance, but none appeared (TIME Magazine Cover - How The Right Went Wrong - Mar. 26, 2007 - Republicans - Politics - Ronald Reagan). He received extensive praise in early 2008 from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (Lou Cannon, Obama’s Reagan Transformation? - 100 Days Blog - NYTimes.com, 27 January 2009). The recent political history text from Sean Wilentz is properly entitled The Age of Reagan (Wilentz 2008). His mythic presence is so pervasive that reality is hard to separate from it. That will be my chief objective here.
Reagan only achieved iconic status after he became president. The 1980 election was expected to be close. It proved not to be. Ronald Reagan easily defeated incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, by ten points in the national popular vote (50.75% to 41.01%) and overwhelmingly in the Electoral College tally with 44 states and 489 Electoral College votes, to Carter’s six states plus D.C. and 49 College votes (Leip, 1980 Presidential Election; Roper, US Presidential Election 1980). Four years later he won reelection by an authentic landslide, nearing the benchmark 3 to 2 popular landslide standard with 58.77% of the popular vote over Walter Mondale, and winning 49 states with a record 525 College votes (Leip, 1984 Presidential Election; Roper, US Presidential Election 1984). Reagan had eight years to leave his stamp as the dominant American politician of his era, one whose overriding influence remains in place well past the new millennium.
There are distinct resemblances between Reagan of the 1980s and Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s beyond the obvious similarity of election results. There are also strong distinctions. These illuminate how the modern presidential office itself has changed. While highlighting the specific conduct of office by Reagan, I pay special attention to this FDR connection. The contemporary Republicans have become the party of Reagan as the Democrats once were the house FDR built. But like FDR, Reagan was not all-powerful despite his sweeping impact upon subsequent American politics. In this chapter, I first address and dismiss the popular myth that Reagan as president was immune to the instrumentally rational judgment of voters and citizens. Second, I show that Reagan personified the governing strategy known as "going public" (Kernell 1993). This was part of the teflon mythology surrounding Ronald Reagan as the Great Communicator. Success in public relations notwithstanding, Reagan actually had abiding difficulties and frequent confrontations with the Congress. He also had deeply serious deficiencies as an administrator, even while his rhetorical and leadership qualities stamped him as a superb example of someone who understood who he was and what direction he wanted his country to go. But Reagan's chief historical claim to fame is his association with the renewed Cold War of the 1980s and the stunning end of both that war and the Soviet Union itself. This is last, but not least, in our look at the 40th President.
II. The 'Teflon presidency' myth Top; Next down
A popular myth says that Reagan was the ‘teflon president’. Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder wanted to address Reagan's apparent immunity from criticism by many people whom she knew were disdainful of the President’s conservative policies. Using a common kitchen pan analogy, she remarked that "He's just like a Teflon frying pan: Nothing sticks to him." (Bartleby, 940. Patricia Schroeder, US Congresswoman. Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations. 1988) Reagan indeed was personally far more popular than were most of his hard-line conservative domestic policies. And he did seemingly sail through rough waters with outward displays of equanimity and serenity that reminded one of Franklin Roosevelt. Like FDR, Reagan knew who he was. The man had a personal charm noted equally by his political friends and enemies, including prime adversary Tip O'Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House in the first six Reagan presidential years of 1981 through 1986 (O'Neill 1987, 334-335; Tolchin 1994, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. obituary). He was resilient, surviving a near-fatal gunshot wound in March 1981, a deep recession within a year of taking office, a 1983 terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, a major foreign policy fiasco with Iran and the Nicaraguan rebels in 1986, an unprecedented tripling of the national debt in eight years, and a Democrat-dominated Congress which never seriously considered passing a Reagan budget after accepting his first one in 1981. Surely this man seems a candidate for catlike status, with nine political lives.
The problem with this 'teflon presidency' is that it never happened. A great deal stuck to him. Ronald Reagan was subject to the same changes in public approval according to presidential and national successes and failures as were all other presidents. Reagan's approval changed less quickly and dramatically than Nixon, Ford and Carter during the volatile 1973-1981 period, but it still rose and fell substantially in response to events. A relatively controversial ideological figure during election 1980, his robust election margin is chiefly a confirmation that the public had decisively rejected the Carter presidency. He had only 60 percent approval and 24 percent disapproval on the March 13-16 poll two months after inauguration, hardly comparable to the pre-Watergate early ratings of Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson (Kernell 1993, 126). Following his gunshot injury on 30 March 1981, the polls jumped from April 3-6 through May 8-11 to his highest career ratings of 67 and 68 percent approval with only 18 and 21 percent disapproval (Roper Center, Job Performance Ratings for President Reagan). That is attributable to his gunshot recovery. It was short lived. By June through August Reagan hovered around 60 percent approval; not bad, again, but no better than Carter in 1977 and far below pre-Watergate first year ratings.
What happened next is a textbook example of why Reaganomics would become the very symbol of this whole presidential era. In fall 1981 a major national recession began and ran throughout 1982. This was a clear consequence of applying stringent anti-inflation money supply measures directed by the largely independent Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker, whom Carter appointed in 1979 and Reagan strongly supported because of his intense anti-inflation viewpoint (Weatherford and McDonnell 1990; Sawhill and Stone 1984; Hibbs 1987, 287-288; Cannon 1991, 267-74). Volcker-led 'Fed' policy cut the real dollar (postinflation) M-1B money supply by 6.5 percent in 1980, helping ensure Carter's dismal electoral fate (Hibbs 1987, 75, 191-195). In pre-inflation terms, money supply then grew by only 7.1 percent in 1981 and 6.5 percent in 1982, again quite restrictive compared to slow GNP growth and still-high price inflation (Hibbs 1987, 287). Unemployment in 1982 reached postwar record levels, averaging 9.7% in 1982 and 9.6% in 1983 with a quarterly peak of 10.7% in fall 1982. Yearly inflation rose at 9.2% in 1981, then dropped to 5.8% in 1982, and skidded to 3.8% in 1983 (Hibbs 1987, 290-291). So the anti-inflation monetary policy of the Fed worked to Reagan's satisfaction--but at a major political price.
Reagan paid that price in approval ratings. He dipped by December 1981 to 49 percent approval and 41 percent disapproval. In both 1982 and 1983 he averaged only 44 percent approval to 46 percent disapproval (Presidential Job Performance - Reagan; Edwards with Gallup 1990, 176). The lowest point came at the end of January 1983 with 35 percent approval (56 percent disapproval) just as the dismaying last quarter 1982 economic reports made the airwaves. Consumer confidence in the economy followed the trend, reaching lower than any postwar points except the height of the two oil-related price shocks of 1974 and 1979-80 (Stanley and Niemi 1992, Fig. 13-3, 428).
Reagan's party also paid the price with a net loss of 26 House seat in November 1982, nearly equal to the 33 they gained in the 1980 election sweep. This came despite huge optimism in 1981 that they would win a majority for the first time since 1953, that their party finances exceeded the Democrats by 7 or 8 to 1, and that they had recruited an excellent crop of experienced office holders to run against surviving incumbent Democrats. It all went seemingly for naught. In fact, the White House led an effective collective party economic policy campaign labeled 'Stay the Course' (Jacobson 1985); and this contributed to holding GOP losses to 26 seats in a year where economic conditions were so dismal that standard election forecasting called for a 58-seat loss (Jacobson 1987, 165)! Nonetheless the 1982 loss produced a White House panic. In post-election November 1982 they begged the Federal Reserve for a faster monetary growth rate in 1983. The Fed readily obliged, producing a near-record real M-1B monetary growth in 1983 of more than 7 percent in a climate where the annual inflation rate dipped below 5 percent for the first time since 1972 (Hibbs 1987, 274, 287).
A robust recovery followed by late 1983 and accelerated still further in 1984. The best available household or voters' measure of economic growth is real per capita disposable income after taxes--your own money in your own pocket, free to spend or invest as you wish. By this measure 1981 was modest at 1.7% growth, better than the dismal -0.6% in Carter's 1980. But 1982 saw -1.3% decline, worse even than 1980. Then in 1983 it rose by 2.5% yearly, but nearly all that was expressed in the freight-train expansion of fall 1983. The real halcyon year was 1984, which saw a 5.8% increase (Hibbs 1987, 290).
Reagan went straight up with the stock market, except that his recovering approval rating lagged in time a few months behind real indicators of economy recovery. This was slow enough that White House aides constantly worried about getting out the message to Americans that good times had returned. Reagan stood in October 7-10, 1983 at only 45 percent approval. But in November he rose to 53 percent and stayed there steadily until September 1984, at which time he rose further to 57 percent. By that time the full extent of recovery was undeniable even to Democrats as the Reagan campaign lavished funds on the classically feel-good 'Morning in America' campaign which said nothing of problems yet unsolved nor any 1980-styled ideological calls for a new direction in the nation. In the fall 1984 campaign season Reagan ended October (October 26-29) with 58 percent approval, within one percentage point of his share of 1984 popular voting.
Reagan's first term is an object lesson in the political business cycle. This is the relationship between presidential management of the economy and the fixed American electoral calendar. Presidents are assumed to promote a maximum likelihood of reelection by timing economic recovery measures for that year. Evidence of whether presidents really can accomplish this is mixed, and postwar aggregate indicators of its success are not impressive. But we know presidents try hard to bring it about, and some election years show striking successes and failures at the enterprise. Carter obviously did not accomplish this in 1980 after appointing Paul Volcker to the Fed. Neither did Eisenhower in 1960, when his lack of economic stimulus brought about Vice-President Nixon's narrow defeat in Nixon's own estimation. In 1972 Nixon pulled every available economic stimulus move he could to boost his reelection chances (Tufte 1978, 29-55). And the evidence does show that Reagan policymaking successfully brought about a robust recovery in time for full electoral credit-taking in 1984. The Fed did open up the money spigot after November 1982. Not only that, but the major Reagan-promoted tax cut of 1981 had its fullest effect in calendar 1984 as the third and final yearly installment of tax cuts went into place. Combined with Fed policy, that produced a truly impressive economic stimulus in landslide 1984.
Reagan had repeatedly campaigned, and used a 'going public' strategy, in which he banked his presidency upon economic performance. When it did well, he rode high; when poor, he paid the price. This is absolutely inconsistent with the teflon myth, which would prescribe no strong relationship of Reagan's approval to policy or objective national events. After reelection, Reagan rode high on the economy for two more years. For a full fourteen months from September 1985 through late October 1986 he never fell below 60 percent approval. Commentators remarked that this contravened the customary honeymoon thesis, in which the president supposedly rode high at first and then inexorably slipped. Also during this period, the myth of an insulated teflon presidency grew to the level of received wisdom. Then came November 1986 and the public breaking of the Iran-contra scandal.
Reagan paid dearly for this foreign policy fiasco. In October 24-27 he stood at 63 percent approval and 29 percent disapproval. One month later he had slipped to 47 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval (Presidential Job Performance - Reagan). This was not a temporary loss. Reagan averaged only 48 percent approval in all of 1987, which was dominated by news from Iran-contra including the lengthy televised summer congressional hearings with Oliver North. There was some talk of impeachment, obsessive worry about it in the White House, and relief when the Tower Commission severely criticized the President for managerial failure but gave no indication that any indictment or impeachment procedure should be considered. Even in 1988 he averaged only 52 percent approval, reaching a relative high point of 63 percent in the very late lame-duck period after Christmas 1988 following a three-way public meeting of Reagan, Bush and Soviet leader Gorbachev at New York City. Once again, "there is certainly no evidence here of a Teflon-coated presidency invulnerable to the shifts in public opinion experienced by other presidents" (Edwards with Gallup 1990, 176).
As with all modern presidents, so also with Reagan. He was to profit from peace and prosperity and pay for economic folly and foreign fiascos like all his predecessors did. There is no persuasive evidence that personal charm and communicative skill truly insulates any chief executive from potential losses of public job approval.
III. Reagan the conservative Top; Next Down
Ronald Reagan changed the nation by ushering in an era of conservative dominance. Before November 1980 the prevailing belief was that ideological conservatives could not be elected president. Liberalism has been the dominant political movement from Roosevelt through Johnson. Goldwater's successful nomination and crashing general election defeat of 1964 demonstrated that conservatives could take a party but not a nation. Reagan's election and reelection, followed by another Republican whose standing depended very strongly on his association with Reagan, proved that America would accept conservative leadership. As the FDR-fostered era of 1933 to 1968 was one of liberalism, that of 1981 to 2005 is a Reagan-forged conservative one. This section addresses the conservative political beliefs and practices of President Reagan in his two terms.
Reagan had a partner across the waters whose own
conservative regime coincided in time and policy with his. That, of
course, was Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, who reigned as Prime Minister
for 11 years from May 1979 to November 1990 (Thatcher 1993).
Their famous partnership was forged on common ideological convictions plus firm
conviction that their course was ultimately right in historical terms (Thatcher
Thatcher gave the ex-president a laudatory sendoff in 1994 on the
occasion of Reagan's 83rd birthday with these words:
"You brushed off the jibes and jabs of your jealous critics. With that Irish twinkle and that easy homespun style, which never changed, you brought a new assurance to America. You were not only America's President -- important as that is -- you were a great leader. In a time of average men, you stood taller than anyone else.
With a toughness unseen for a long time, you stood face-to-face with the evil empire. And, with an unexpected diplomacy which confused your foes -- and even some of your friends -- you reached out to that empire, perhaps no longer evil, but still formidable. You met its leaders on their turf, but on your terms.
In a time of politicians, you proved yourself a statesman. And that leadership, that faith in freedom and enterprise brought about a renewal of this great country. America was back and the free world became a safer place.
It was not only that you were the Great Communicator -- and you were the greatest -- but that you had a message to communicate." (Lady Thatcher Salutes President Reagan, February 23, 1994)
While those words look a bit excessive to sophisticates of any kind, they reflect the real adulation of conservatives in America and abroad for their ideological leader. They look suspiciously akin to liberal accolades to Franklin Roosevelt, not to mention the parallel of Roosevelt's famous partnership with Winston Churchill. Forthrightly standing for American ideals in world affairs is an integral component to successful modern presidencies.
Liberals did not know what to make of this president, who put a friendly face on what they regarded as mean-spirited and misguided policy. Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill took repeated legislative whippings from Reagan in the president's maiden year of 1981. It was the classic presidential honeymoon year, augmented by the 30 March 1981 Reagan gunshot injury followed by a visually triumphal return to the arena from an actor who understood how to dramatize conservative legislative aims as personalized crusades (Farrell 2001, Ch. 23, pp. 539-562). Liberals had held the Congress for six years, from 1974 through 1980, and now the numbers and momentum both favored a conservative countermove. It was not long in coming.
Its leading edge was Reaganomics, defined as "an informal term for supply-side economics" (financial definition of Reaganomics -Free Online Dictionary). Supply-side economics came in lieu of demand-side analysis from disciples of Lord Keynes. The crucial idea was that American prosperity was so depressed by high marginal taxation rates on businesses and on productive high-earning individuals, that reduction would actually produce higher net revenue. That came from an economist named Arthur Laffer. As set forth by editorials from the Wall Street Journal via strongly ideological business journalists led by Jude Wanniski, this core notion became the basis for a new cause and a new brand of ideological conservatives. They said progressive taxation, which was crucial to liberal progressive policies, caused individuals and businesses not to produce as much as they would if liberated from these burdens. And just as importantly, it permitted the steady growth of government revenue and spending as a proportion of the total economy. Cut those kinds of taxes, and it would raise private sector productivity and curb government spending. This became known as "defunding the Left" with Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain (on her accession to power in 1979), and with Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Reagan by 1980 came to believe that the Wall Street Journal mantra was a correct economic analysis. He needed no prompt to understand that it was effective conservative politics. By adopting this supply-side emphasis, he launched a sharp turn in government policy toward conservative tax policy. A leading proponent then and now of Reaganomics, William Niskanen's Reaganomics, by William A. Niskanen explains the rationale in more detail after the triumphal passage of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. The key single action was reduction of the top income earners' marginal tax rate from 70% down to 50%--reduced five years later to 28% in the landmark Tax Reform Act of 1986. Fifteen years after the 1981 law got serious cutting of high marginal rates underway, Republicans on the congressional Joint Economic Committee hailed that policy as the start toward comprehensive tax reform (Joint Economic Committee Report, 1996, The Reagan Tax Cuts: Lessons for Tax Reform; Steuerle 2004, 79-99). It certainly was a radical change favoring very high income earners compared to the 50 percent and higher tax rates that prevailed from the 1940s through the 1970s (Steuerle 2004, p. 48, Figure 3-5). It became the basis for several additional curbs on top tax rates during the administration of George W. Bush in years 2001 to 2005 (Rudder 2009). Democrats since the 1980s have raised that marginal rate when in power, while Republicans have reduced it.
Its critics are many, and they point to emergence of high annual deficits attesting that revenue never rose enough to produce the promised balance in annual federal budgets (Steuerle 2004, 79-99). They also bemoan a general trend toward greater concentration of wealth at the top and greater inequality of income by standard Gini measurements. A leading political scientist even calls the subsequent effect a "new gilded age" (Bartels 2008).
IV. Going Public Top; Next Down
The institutional claim that presidents are subject to changes of approval ratings does not mean skill in selling one’s version of events is irrelevant. President Reagan followed the Nixon example of trying assiduously to manage public affairs so that his interpretive messages would predominate in the public airwaves. The leading case illustration in Kernell’s well-known thesis on presidents going public is the Reagan Administration (Kernell 1993, ch. 5).
Ronald Reagan and his White House staff "went public" often and skillfully. Amidst the public approval rally postdating Reagan's 30 March 1981 gunshot injury, Reagan gave a memorable April 28 national television address in the well of the House asking the public to endorse his budget plans. The public responded favorably with a blizzard of mail to Capitol Hill which converted into enough votes to pass the Reagan budget (Kernell 1993, 125-127; O'Neill 1987, 344). The same strategy worked again to pass the landmark 1981 tax cut. By all standards this was the largest all-time tax reduction in U.S. history, a major political triumph for the supply-side economics advocates, and a chief source of the tripling of national debt which followed in 1982 through 1988.
This was not merely a 1981 maiden year strategy taking advantage of the so-called honeymoon period. Kernell shows that 1985 budget negotiations were aimed less at internal bargaining than at making a public record for the outside campaign for public opinion which might be brought to bear upon Congress (Kernell 1993, 4-6). Also that year, Reagan laid down the marker that in tax reform, he would not permit any such overhaul to produce a higher total revenue intake than prior tax policy would bring. And he indicated clearly that if Democrats did not sign up for reform, he was prepared to 'go public' in 1986 midterms to excoriate their resistance. In this instance, public opinion never showed a strong support or understanding of what tax reform meant. But it was enough to hold forth the readiness to go public against possible adversaries--at a time (1985 and 1986) when Reagan's approval ratings ran 60 percent or higher (Presidential Job Performance - Reagan). Many Democrats within the crucial House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee went for reform out of realistic fear that Reagan and the GOP could charge obstructionism and fealty to special interest politics (Birnbaum and Murray 1987; Arnold 1990, 210-223). A bill which drastically reduced special preferences in the U.S. tax code was enacted to the bipartisan amazement of Congress and presidency watchers. The implied threat to 'go public' and punish offenders is part of a modern president’s arsenal.
Ronald Reagan especially needed an active 'going public' strategy for several reasons. One was and is that the post-1964 period is one of unprecedented detachment of voters from consistent party voting. The result is chronic repetition of divided government since 1968, usually with Republicans in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress. Reagan’s problem was that he lacked Republican party control of the House of Representatives. The Republicans did control the Senate from 1981 through 1986 with about a 55 to 45 seat margin, but in the House their high water mark was 192 seats (44 percent) in the 97th House (1981-82) elected in 1980. That slipped to only 166 (38 percent) after 1982's recession midterm (Presidents and Congresses for 1981-82 and 1983-84). And even though Reagan personally won a 1984 landslide, the voters' habit of ticket splitting came forth in a campaign climate which gave voters absolutely no reason to vote in Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents. Incumbents of all sorts won routinely in 1984; thus the GOP gained only 16 House seats to arrive at 182 (42 percent) to the Democrats' 253. In short, the 1980 hope for creation of a new Republican national majority party never materialized, and there was no Reagan Revolution at this national institutional level (in great contrast to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic sweep in 1934 midterm elections and the 1936 landslide).
A second reason is that Reagan could not attempt a Lyndon Johnson approach to Congress. First, the post-Watergate Congress would not tolerate that even from a Democrat, let alone a leader of the congressional minority party. Second, the Johnson approach requires of the president an unreasonably high personal investment of energy and single-mindedness. Reagan personally lacked the sheer time and energy for personal lobbying of Congress despite his abundant personal charm; especially after the gunshot wound, Reagan always required considerable periods of personal rest. Reagan’s famous inattention to most detail also figures in. The Johnson approach required that one personally invest great amounts of time in learning the names, faces, details and policy views of members. Reagan never did that with any large group of people either in California or Washington. Reagan recalled few names of Members after meeting them, and was just as detached around them as he was in Cabinet meetings where he regularly fell asleep (Cannon 1991, 498). On one pro forma meeting of urban mayors, the President greeted his own HUD Cabinet secretary with a “Mr. Mayor” salutation! The intensive Johnson approach to legislating has not been possible for most other presidents, least of all for Ronald Reagan.
The intensive insiders' bargaining approach also requires an issue command and familiarity that Reagan strikingly lacked. Stories are legion of astonishment by Washington elite figures that Reagan did not know elementary facts, such as the Soviets' reliance upon ICBMs as a nuclear deterrent. Others muttered about Reagan believing in astrology and pre-destiny (Cannon 1991, 583-584), accepting 'creation science' as real science (Cannon 1991, 68-69), claiming that trees caused most atmospheric pollution, or buying the concept of Strategic Defense Initiative from the physicist Edward Teller without understanding that space-based antimissile defense relied upon a "nuclear event" in space to work--this about twenty years after Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the 1963 treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests. Reagan's habit of deriving principles from scattered anecdotal cases is not a typical practice of political professionals in America. Walter Mondale in 1984 scored a telling point in saying: "I'm reminded a little bit of what Will Rogers once said about Hoover. He said it's not what he doesn't know that bothers me, it's what he knows for sure just ain't so." (Debating Our Destiny: The First 1984 Presidential Debate) This did not apparently bother Reagan, who was ideologically certain of what he believed and utterly confident of its ultimate correctness. His poor work habits and striking lack of policy sophistication would have been far greater barriers to this leader’s political effectiveness in settings which relied much less upon going public.
And in going public itself, Reagan was a thorough professional. His polished speeches are widely, but wrongly, portrayed as a natural gift of a born actor. This onetime B movie actor had in one or another mass medium spent his entire adult life honing his craft. He regularly practiced reading his speeches in front of a mirror, something Jimmy Carter disdained as though impressions were immaterial. He had written the celebrated 1964 Goldwater speech himself, having taken its basic theme from a dozen years’ work with GE on the lecture circuit. Reagan also knew and appreciated the values of good speechwriting. As President, Reagan like Nixon attended carefully to both composition and presentational qualities of work from his speechwriting shop. He reviewed the drafting of speeches with a practiced eye for how to reshape the language to appeal directly to the non-elite citizenry. He liked speechwriter Peggy Noonan's speech drafts because they showed her avid taste for popular culture with mass appeal (Noonan 1990, 253-259). This was one aspect of the presidential job Reagan handled himself with the command and confidence born less of talent per se than from believing in its importance, and doing it, over decades. The public presidency came to full flower in the Reagan period.
Not only Reagan but the Reagan White House was organized around going public with maximum effect. His White House carefully shielded the President from impromptu responses to newspersons’ queries, and minimized use of press conferences where Reagan could not rely upon his cue cards. Maltese in Spin Control refers to the Reagan years as “perfecting the art of communication” (Maltese 1992, Chapter 7). Collier’s study of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs affirms that “Unlike other administrations, the Reagan team considered public appeals an integral part of its legislative strategy.” (Collier 1997, 211) The Reagan Administration principals responsible for legislative and public messages were convinced that both the Ford and Carter White House organizations were fatally flawed because of decentralization and failure to coordinate the President’s daily and long-term messages, thereby ceding that power to the Washington media. After an initial period of disorganization lasting through part of 1981 and culminating in disorder following the 30 March 1981 assassination attempt which put President Reagan into surgery for removal of .22 caliber fragments, the White House was able to create a disciplined public and legislative strategy during the first term concentrated in the offices of White House Chief of Staff (James Baker) and de facto Communications Director David Gergen (Maltese 1991, 179-197). Not only did the White House carefully fashion a handful of central economic and national security policy goals to move through Congress, they also insisted upon disallowing Cabinet or White House officials from diverting the public messages to other topics. This had been attempted with Ford and Carter at times, but never worked systematically. In the latter case, the President’s own disposition to spread his attention among numerous issues with none having distinct priority, undercut the effort to launch a public relations campaign to obtain congressional passage of crucial priorities. With Reagan, that was not a problem. This President knew from the start of 1981 that his first term priorities were to enact a major tax cut, increase defense spending to permit a more robust confrontation with the Soviets, and to curb Democratic domestic spending programs inherited from Great Society days. All other agenda items, including those of the religious and cultural right wing, would have to wait for later.
The media writers who have published extensively on each modern presidency take on an institutionally partisan flavor of resentment toward the Reagan White House’s success in careful news management. Investigative journalist Mark Hertsgaard said: "One of David Gergen’s pet theories about news management held that a White House could not hope to govern successfully unless it could get its version of reality through the “filter” of the press and out to the American "public.” (Hertsgaard 1988, 105). The partisanship works both directions. Gergen came by his view from hard experience in the Nixon and Ford White House. He reflected Ford’s Chief of Staff Richard Cheney, who told Maltese: "You’ve got to control what you put out. You don’t let the press set the agenda. The press is going to object to that. They like to set the agenda. They like to decide what’s important and what isn’t important. But if you let them do that, they’re going to trash your presidency." (Maltese 1991, 130) These judgments doubtless contributed to future President Bill Clinton’s decision to bring David Gergen aboard in 1993.
Not that all aspects of Reagan White House management were so successful. Going public strategy went downhill in the second term because of mis-castings of key White House actors. The famous job swap by which James Baker took the Secretary of Treasury post in 1985 while Donald Regan assumed Baker’s Chief of Staff post, was difficult from the start. Treasury fared well, with Baker and his egotistical but talented aide Richard Darman shepherding a major tax reform measure to enactment in 1986 (Birnbaum and Murray 1987; Conlan, Wrightson and Beam 1990). The White House was another matter. Chief of Staff Donald Regan openly professed the view that Congress was subordinate to the White House, and made that very clear to Republican leaderships on the Hill. This was symptomatic of the several shortcomings of Regan, an intelligent former private sector CEO and expert salesman but also someone disdainful of politics and politicians. Regan’s chief political asset was that Ronald Reagan personally liked and respected him as a forceful self-made man who had made good in private life. But Reagan biographer Lou Cannon says Regan as Chief of Staff “brought four deficiencies to his new job, any one of which might have been enough to do him in.” (Cannon 1991, 567)
There were other miscastings as well. The new White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan had a penchant common to intense ideologues of impeaching the personal motives of political adversaries. In the unfortunate 1985 Bitburg public relations gaffe during which the President planned to commemorate German war dead where Waffen S.S. officers were interred at the same site, Buchanan insisted on dismissing criticism as simple carping by left-wingers (Bitburg: 56. Bitburg) In 1985 and again in 1986 he suggested that Democrats opposed to Reagan support for the rebels opposed to Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime were sympathetic to communism, which ensured another pair of defeats of White House request for funding of the rebels (Maltese 1991, 208; Kernell and Popkin 1986, 196). Together with Regan’s attitude, this was not a successful combination in promoting the president’s positions on the Hill.
But through all of this, Reagan himself thrived with speeches consistently based upon appealing stories designed to further his conviction that America was and is a special nation. This is the theme of American exceptionalism to which Franklin Roosevelt had devoted many speeches; the idea is that America had a special God-given role to play in fostering human liberty and prosperity. Reagan employed simple stories of individual heroics to promote a conservative version of this theme, one in which voluntarism and personal devotion supplants government agency as the moving force in American good fortunes (Jamieson 1988). Other presidents gave voice to the familiar belief that American values should be spread to other nations, but only Reagan reduced this campaign to stories based so clearly upon single actors. Even with the massive collective enterprise of D-Day on 6 June 1944, Reagan concentrated upon the few men trapped under enemy fire at Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach to personalize the American contribution to defeat of Nazi Germany (Speeches of Ronald Reagan under 6/6/84 datings).
Exceptionalism is also based upon special destiny through failure of American adversaries. The Soviet Union was consigned to the "ash heap of history" as a failed experiment in suppressing freedom for sake of collective goals (Speeches of Ronald Reagan under 6/8/82). That is followed by a visit to the National Association of Evangelicals to declare the Soviet system an "evil empire" (Speeches of Ronald Reagan under 3/8/83). Almost always there was some form of personalization in this. In 1987 Reagan emulated Kennedy's Berlin Wall speech with his own missive: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" (Speeches of Ronald Reagan under 6/12/87)
And of course such exceptionalism also became an integral part of Reagan election campaigns. The famous 1984 campaign theme of "It's morning again in America" harnessed images of a reborn country harvesting the restorative enterprise of the first Reagan presidential term (Renka, Speeches of Ronald Reagan - Reagan campaign commercials; George Raine, Creating Reagan's Image).
With these rhetorical skills, Reagan as President relied more fundamentally upon 'going public' than any previous president. Kernell argues that this practice is inherent to the office and will expand simply because the underlying changes of American politics have made the old-fashioned insider's bargaining game less consequential. Probably he is correct. But the personal adaptation of an individual president matters too. In Reagan's case he was a near-perfect fit for 'going public' with Congress. Both his peculiar strengths and striking weaknesses dictated that.
V. Reagan and the Congress Top; Next Down
President Reagan had inherent difficulties with Congress no matter how often or well he resorted to going public. The fundamental reasons are structural, dating back to the Johnson and Nixon era with prevalence of divided government. No amount of Reagan’s personal charm and skill at going public could ultimately offset the habit in an era of divided government of Congress relying chiefly upon itself for determination of policy. A brilliant start with the Democrat-majority House of Representatives in 1981 gave rise to gushes of favorable claims that Reagan was emulating the legislative mastery of Johnson and even Franklin Roosevelt. This honeymoon period proved quite brief. Over eight years and two terms of Reagan, the institutional barriers to close cooperation and sustained White House leadership of Congress became more and more evident. What began brilliantly ended in disappointment.
Reagan in the first term had the major advantage of a properly organized and skillfully operating White House Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA). Reagan’s election rhetoric was equally anti-Washington as that of Jimmy Carter, and he also shared the attribute that neither had held any pre-presidential high federal office. But unlike Carter in 1976-77, Reagan in 1980-81 promptly entrusted the legislative affairs office to experienced senior Washington hands who understood Congress well. Kenneth Collier’s extensive study of postwar congressional relations by presidents shows that “every staffer had some Hill experience” unlike several of predecessor Carter's top people (Collier 1997, 198) Even more importantly, Reagan’s White House lobbyists were linked closely to Chief of Staff James Baker’s Legislative Strategy Group (LSG), which gave the OLA directors Max Friedersdorf and Kenneth Duberstein the ability to see the president daily and speak authoritatively to Members of Congress with the president’s backing (ibid., 198-199). They consciously avoided the early mistakes of the Carter team, and contributed to the effective Reagan decision to avoid pursuing too many domestic policy objectives in the crucial first year (Collier 1997, 201). The Legislative Strategy Group was a major success of the first Reagan term. It incorporated polling, public relations strategy, and group outreach into a single orchestrated plan for winning important tests in Congress. Most strikingly, this entity was run by determined and experienced political pragmatists, notably Baker and his deputy Richard Darman. They maintained good relations with Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. They kept the most important White House hard-line ideologues at a distance--including Reagan’s close personal aide Edward Meese (who later became Attorney General) and the confrontational communications specialist Patrick Buchanan. The same principals moved to Treasury in 1985, where they were instrumental to the ultimate success of Reagan’s single major second-term domestic policy objective, the passage of lowered and flattened personal income tax rates in the Tax Reform Act in 1986 (Birnbaum and Murray 1987; Conlan, Wrightson, and Beam 1990). They used the fact that Reagan’s public speaking skills were powerful deterrents against Members of Congress who might emerge to openly jettison top Reagan policy priorities such as that tax reform, and similarly provided effective cover and support for Democrats who dared to cross their leadership and vote with the White House.
Despite the skill of Reagan’s legislative strategy, there were institutional factors which mitigated against sustained congressional success for any president in Reagan’s political position. First there was a seat shortage. The single most important legislative asset a Republican president can have is more Republican-held seats. By 1980, the Democrats had held the House continuously for 26 consecutive years, the longest single-party control in American history. The Democratic party identification advantage with voters slipped seriously after its high-water 1964 mark, but few who abandoned that party adopted Republicanism. They largely became independent, uncommitted, ticket-splitting voters. Watergate contributed greatly to curbing Republican seat holdings in the 1970s, leaving the Reagan-led 33 seat House gain of 1980 well short of a majority (at 192 of 435 House seats). The South, however, was moving steadily toward the affiliation of its white electorate with Republicans. Many oldtime Southern Democrats were ideologically not far from Reagan, and others respected his electoral prowess in their region. So Reagan could rely as had Nixon upon support from numerous southern dixiecrats. This he did with great impact in 1981, where a 44 percent GOP seat share combined with just enough Southern Democrats to enact Reagan's budget over the Democratic leadership alternative, pass his cherished 23 percent income tax rate reduction, and place the first installment in the major defense buildup. A leading Democratic supporter of Reagan in the House that year was Phil Gramm of Texas, who later turned Republican successfully enough to personify the eventual 1990s transition of the South to a congressional GOP stronghold.
But Reagan’s first-year success was never repeated. Over the next seven years, the time-honored conservative coalition basically vanished on domestic policy. There is both a surface reason and a deeper, underlying one. The surface reason was the Southern Democrats' collective revulsion to the enormous budget deficits which immediately followed Reagan’s 1981 tax cut to produce the first of many successive $100 billion-plus annual debt increments in fiscal 1982. There is no doubt that Reagan and his conservative allies valued the tax cut far more than deficit reduction. That was not true of the Southern Democrats. Once the failure of supply side assumptions (that the economy could grow so rapidly that lower revenue rates would produce more net revenue) was proven, they revolted against Reagan budgets submitted every January with questionably optimistic assumptions about rapid revenue growth. No amount of LSG strategy or public relations pleas from the President could reverse this.
A more elementary reason for progressive diminution of the conservative's cross-party alliance is identified by political scientist David Rohde. He shows that Southern Democratic congressional districts became much more liberal in composition while those of solidly conservative character switched from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans (Rohde 1991). Racial division was the hidden but always predominant political bifurcation line between the parties in the 1980s, rather than within the Democratic party per the 1933-1970s era. This means that after 1981, numerical Democratic majorities in the House actually translated into policy majorities against the bulk of Reagan domestic policy. Southern Democrats were becoming progressively less conservative as some like Gramm turned to the GOP while others sought to survive Democratic primaries with black voters by adopting far more moderate domestic policy stances. The Reagan conservatism on matters of race admitted of little reconciliation here. Only on defense and foreign policy was the Reagan White House able to regularly count upon conservative coalition voting to carry the day for them (Renka 1991).
The result was dismal for Reagan. One measure of this is floor voting in Congress on which there is a President’s Position. President Reagan won about 75 percent of all contested House floor votes in 1981--an excellent result for someone without even a party majority. But he never won nearly that high a proportion again. By 1987 and 1988 Reagan was winning only half as often--about 37 to 38 percent, and he had an authentic rival for control of the national policy agenda in the person of new Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Little wonder Reagan expended a great deal of public rhetoric after 1984 upon balanced budget amendments, an item veto, term limitations, and other now-familiar language of a president facing habitual divided government. But even the national public forum was not the President’s alone. Tip O’Neill, who served as Speaker of the House from 1981 through 1986, learned belatedly but well that public advocacy and defense of his party’s policy was a new job requirement for national leadership positions. The President gets credit for teaching him that. The Senate also entered the public forum more directly. By 1986 the Senate joined the House in going on television via C-SPAN and on the ubiquitous Sunday morning political forums to promote policy agendas. Senate Democrats chose George Mitchell to replace Robert Byrd as their leader precisely because Mitchell was far more effective in defending the party’s decisions before the public. The onetime presidential informational monopoly was beginning to erode. Congress, too, could go public.
Several enduring themes emerge from the Reagan legislative experience. One is to strike early and hard to get presidential policy enacted--but this requires careful qualification. The early Reagan period was a ‘honeymoon period’ of high assets, making it the ideal time to obtain major policy from Congress. Reagan did indeed have great successes in 1981, and Congress did not later reverse those policies. But other presidents before and since have not found it helpful to strike hard at first. The narrowly elected Kennedy did not in 1961, and wisely awaited a year’s time with a newly experienced White House staff and greater approval ratings for himself. Another scholarly mistake is to suggest that only a honeymoon period can be productive with Congress. Johnson proved otherwise, having enjoyed not one but three years success before the crash of the 1966 election ended it; and FDR with large Democratic congressional majorities actually had a full term’s productive creation of New Deal policies before conservative opposition curbed his aspirations. One should note also that not all important Reagan policy came in the first year. The major defense buildup took graduated steps through the entire first term because no singular boosting of defense could be done in one year. In short, presidents should push hard when they have the political capital to do it, and pull back when they lack the same.
Next, there is the lesson of separating domestic and foreign policy. This was important with FDR, who enjoyed New Deal predominance with Congress yet was unable to win approval from the same coalition to effect changes in American foreign policy neutrality toward the threat of Hitler and Japan. With Reagan, domestic support eroded when Southern Democrats rejected huge annual deficits. But Reagan could keep counting of their votes for his Cold War defense buildup. There are "two presidencies" legislatively in which divided government severely curbs presidential leadership on domestic policy but, at least in the Cold War period, permits a much wider latitude for presidential leadership on foreign policy (Shull 1991).
Additionally, there are legislative changes in climate of support owing to external events. The Reagan defense growth was curbed when major international changes intervened in the form of Soviet elevation of Michael Gorbachev to leadership in 1985. After that, international defusing of Cold War tensions brought first Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and then Reagan in the U.S. to a relatively relaxed position on the need for larger and more rapid expansion of armaments. This ironically undercut the very Reagan rhetoric which argued for more arms buildup under the old-time logic of preparing to confront the Soviets and their proxies wherever the next flare-up might occur. The leading Democratic Senator on defense matters, Sam Nunn of Georgia, led successful efforts from 1985 onward to make pragmatic curbs of previously planned military expansion when international events demonstrated that a Cold War stand-down might come about.
There is next the element of Reagan’s effectiveness in defining a relatively narrow agenda and throwing all his efforts into enacting that. Where Carter claimed equal importance for dozens of planks in 1977, Reagan sought only three or four in 1981. FDR in 1933-37 and LBJ in 1964-66 got great numbers of domestic measures onto the law books, but they had two-to-one partisan majorities of essentially like-minded Democrats in the House and Senate. Any President facing divided government cannot pursue another such ‘hundred days’ or similar measures of sheer production. Instead it is necessary to careful decide what matters most, and then commit greatly to getting that done.
The second term of a term-limited presidency is another problem. Not all Reagan’s second-term legislative problems owe to Amendment XXII. His advancing age and ebbing of personal energy, his unfortunate choices of Donald Regan and Patrick Buchanan for top White House policy jobs, and his approval crash after the November 1986 revelations of the Iran-contra scandal were not inherently last-term woes. But the inevitable winding down of a presidency became clear in 1985 through 1988. Legislators do not confer the same deference and fear to someone near term’s end as someone new to a top post.
The final theme is that ‘going public’ helps a president offset the lack of reliable party-based congressional majorities, but it is insufficient compensation for the vanishing of Roosevelt-styled ideological and party-based majorities such as FDR enjoyed for his whole first term. It is true that Reagan was a potent practitioner of going public. The combination of communications skill and a well-defined legislative strategy for using it was advantageous. Numerous testimonials exist that congressional Democrats basically feared crossing Reagan on something the President truly wanted (Collier 1997, 216-218, 229). But Kernell identifies an elementary shortcoming to going public. The president must carefully husband its usage on major occasions. As FDR once took care to avoid Fireside Chats unless the occasion were truly important, a president who goes public too often forfeits ability to do it well when it truly counts. There must also be an inherently plausible argument. Roosevelt could not sell the fiction that his Court packing effort was to relieve caeload of nine old men. And Ronald Reagan basically got nowhere when proclaiming the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime posed an invasion threat to South Texas. It was implausible on its face. Members of Congress snickered about communists crossing from Southeast Asia to take over California.
As Collier puts it, "the impact of going public is often overrated." (Collier 1997, 212) One story says ‘God gave the horse his tail to whisk away the flies, but if the horse had his way, he would have no tail and there would be no flies’. That applies to going public. It is compensation for loss rather than adaptation to presidential strength. A major distinction of FDR and Reagan is that only FDR produced an enduring national majority coalition fashioned around one party (Hamby 1992). Reagan did intend such a thing but fell considerably short in an era when Members of Congress largely fashioned their own electoral fortunes by exploiting incumbency in the near-absence of national partisan forces (Jacobson 1997). There was no dominant Reagan policy translated into an enduring policy majority in the fashion of FDR’s party, even though his presidential influence far exceeds any other during the 1980s and 1990s.
VI. What Should A President Know? The Reagan Administrative Presidency Top; Next Down
Ronald Reagan was once ranked no higher than 28th, a C- grade at best, in an informal presidential poll produced by historian Tim Blessing and publicized in Time during 1991. If that were accurate, one wonders how to rate Nixon, Carter and Ford! Whatever sins of commission and omission tally to the Reagan report card, the Reagan era was one of restored respect and esteem of the presidential office. A rating of 28th was a misguided bit of humor. Liberal or conservative, scholars should have shown enough objectivity and respect for craft to avoid that sort of indictment.
Reagan's ratings have since risen to much more respectable levels. He was an overall 11th from the historians in the 1999 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership (American Presidents Life Portraits - Ronald Reagan) and then 16th in a 2002 Siena College Poll (SRI - Presidential Survey - Aug. 19, 2002) along with a near-great 8th from the conservative Federalist Society-sponsored (OpinionJournal - Hail To The Chief). These do not persuasively say Reagan was a great president. He was and is a great icon of political conservatives, but his mistakes and failings are simply too overriding for greatness. Those failings boil down to political scientist Paul Quirk's question: "What must a president know?" This entails Reagan’s record as an administrative president.
In certain respects Reagan knew a lot. His conservatism was rooted in core values of individualism, respect for work, and desire for an ordered set of institutions. Those values took a serious beating in the 1960s and even more in the 1970s. His idealism and storytelling ability came forth to make conservative ideology look like a gentle and appealing corrective for a country which had strayed off course. He together with Margaret Thatcher became the spokesman for an international tide against socialist practices and communist abuses of human rights and dignity. He responded intelligently to the overwhelming change of Soviet leadership when the traditional apparatchiki were replaced by Michael Gorbachev in 1985. As we have seen, he understood fully the central part of speechmaking and news management to the modern office, and he extended that to reach an international audience. His Pointe du Hoc speech on the 6 June 1984 occasion of the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing was resonant on both sides of the Atlantic where democracies flourished.
Reagan’s certainty of ideological direction was instrumental to producing careful and thorough executive direction in his first term. Kessel (1983, 1984) shows that the White House staff of Reagan contrasted strongly with Jimmy Carter’s for its high ideological cohesion and agreement on the shape and direction government should take. The institutional trend toward increased presidential direction of the executive branch was made far easier for this reason. Reagan also came after divided government and the weakening of national political parties were established facts of life. The adversarial relation of president and Congress meant a struggle over selection of the personnel of the executive branch, which in turn impelled presidents to rely less upon Cabinet offices dependent upon congressional review and more upon White House positions largely immune from such direct rival influences. The progressive weakening of party by the 1980s had proceeded so far that the White House took upon itself the business of manning political appointments in place of the party apparatus.
Accordingly, President Reagan’s tenure is marked by new high points in the careful executive control of personnel decisions for filling the 2000 to 3000 “plum book” executive appointments. Thomas Weko’s study of the White House Personnel Office illustrates the adage held by most rational choice theorists of the executive and many executive practitioners that “personnel is policy.”(Weko 1995, 89-99) The pre-inauguration transition team led by Edwin Meese and Pendleton James expended more than $4 million and employed at least 500 persons in an orchestrated effort to ensure that loyalist Reaganite believers were placed in every possible key executive post (Weko 1995, 90). The extensive combined governing experience from the Nixon and Ford period was useful to ensuring that this time there was central control over sub-Cabinet positions. Merely being a certified Republican with a recommendation from the Republican National Committee counted for little to nothing; but “movement conservatives” who often paid more fealty to ideological purity than pragmatic furthering of Reagan political agendas were another matter. Those could not be summarily vetted out but once in office, they often showed little understanding that other human beings did not believe the same things as they. Personnel was essentially pragmatic, but nonetheless made certain that conservative movement loyalists took residence in numerous agencies where their convictions could alter normal administrative decisions in conservative directions. This practice contrasts strongly to that of Nixon and Ford for the conservatives’ successes in finding sub-cabinet posts from which to make policy in a new direction (Light 1995, 55-57). Reagan and his aides knew the adage "personnel is policy."
But there were serious drawbacks. Many of these ideological appointees held career employees in open contempt (Maranto 1993). Some of these appointments became public embarrassments highlighted by partisan Democrats using their congressional oversight to illustrate the excesses of conservative ideologues. The Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior, and several slots within Health and Human Services and Education were posted to ideologues who eventually proved too subversive or too publicly embarrassing to remain in office.
Reagan personally knew far too little to single out and curb these embarrassments, because he was an extremely lax administrator. Donald Regan became Reagan's White House Chief of Staff in 1985 after swapping jobs with James Baker (who went to Treasury). This former financial CEO was astonished to find that Reagan blithely assented orally when Regan first broached this trade plan to him--"he seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making a decision (Regan 1988, 229)." The same thing happened weekly in response to Regan's detailed policy plans once he was Chief of Staff. Reagan obliviously permitted Nancy Reagan to dictate his travel schedule in great detail by consulting a San Francisco astrologer who prescribed last minute travel changes which others found bizarre (Cannon 1991, 584-585; Regan 1988, 3-5, 68-74, 366-370; American President biography of Nancy Davis Reagan). Little wonder Regan wrote one memoir chapter entitled "The Guesswork Presidency" (Regan 1988, 142-162).
Ronald Reagan was no 'hidden hand' manager in the fashion of a Dwight Eisenhower. Neither was he a hands-on CEO in Donald Regan's fashion, one who delegated out major jobs while keeping a constant narrowed eye upon performance of those duties. And he was not FDR, who assigned rival aides similar ad hoc duties to deliberately invite a slugfest over policy jurisdictions and access to the president’s ear. Reagan was really not an executive manager at all. He set the overall ideological and policy tone without question and with ample effect, but then did not attend the conversion of his vision into specific concrete decisions and actions.
As a direct result, others ran the White House while legitimizing their actions in the president's name. Some who did this handled the job exceptionally well; the Treasury team of James Baker and Richard Darman did handle 1986 tax reform with authentic skill (although less than the numerous sources reliant upon Darman would have us believe), and the Buchanan-Noonan speechwriters' shop in the White House operated well for the most part despite many irritations over Buchanan’s chronic ideological bombast. Others did it poorly. And one group did it worse than poorly. That was the set of players who concocted the 1986 Iran-contra scandal. Apparently led by CIA Director William Casey and under specific housing of the National Security Council, the field operations direction fell to one Oliver North--while both Secretary of State George Schulz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger either were deliberately kept entirely outside this informational loop or wisely managed to absent themselves.
The full tale of Iran-contra is told by the Tower Commission of 1987 and the ultimate 1993 report of Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh (Tower Commission Report. 1987-02-26; Tower Commission Report Excerpts; Walsh Iran - Contra Report; Walsh Iran - Contra Report - Chronology of Key Public Events; Walsh Iran - Contra Report - Chapter 27 President Reagan). Suffice to indicate here that an incompetent job was done to conceal the purchasing of freedom for American hostages held in Lebanon through the selling and buying of arms from Iran. The purchased arms and cash proceeds were then partly transferred to the Nicaraguans fighting the pro-Cuba Sandinista regime amidst numerous unsuccessful attempts by the President to convince the American people to believe in the cause of these Nicaraguan “contras” as freedom fighters. Most Americans took absolutely no notice of Reagan's March 16, 1986 plea that Sandinistas be viewed as a serious security threat to the mainland U.S. Even at the elite level few observers regarded the Sandinista problem as fundamental. For Congress’ part, it enacted several versions of a Boland amendment, so named to prohibit regular operational agencies such as the CIA from undermining the Sandinista regime. Thus the Reagan White House turned an advisory National Security Council position (North’s) into an operational entity to circumvent congressional prohibitions against direct CIA actions. Eventually a Beirut newspaper blew the lid of secrecy from the whole plan, which in turn revealed itself to be a clumsy attempt to circumvent the Boland Amendment while purchasing freedom for American hostages held in Lebanon by local factions loyal to the radical anti-American regime in Iran. The lengthy repercussions included a memorable accounting of Reagan’s personal failure to recall the details of the internal planning and authorization of the venture. For any other modern president, this would be utterly implausible. For this one alone, it is not.
The affair was part of a Reagan policy to pro-actively confront and seek to roll back communist movements wherever opportunity arose for that. This overall policy worked with considerable eventual success in Poland, in Afghanistan, in Grenada, in El Salvador (at the price of backing an exceptionally nasty group of operators), even ultimately in Nicaragua itself by 1990 during the Bush Administration’s tenure. Nonetheless this affair revealed the folly of resorting to secret arms merchant-style dealings through agents unfamiliar with normal foreign policy operational standards. Unfortunately the determination of the Reagan Administration to have its way no matter what prohibitions Congress in control of the other party would place upon it, demonstrates a probable tension for the future so long as divided government prevails and American foreign policy is deeply ambivalent over when and how to intervene forcefully in world trouble spots. Presidents Bush and Clinton have closely followed the Reagan and Nixon and Johnson example of asserting the singular power of the presidency to decide war and peace questions upon its own terms rather than those of an opposition-run legislature.
Paul Quirk has called the Reagan managerial style the 'minimalist presidency' (Quirk 1988). One requirement of even this approach is that "as he evaluates policy advice, the president will at least be able to tell which of his subordinates are making sense (Quirk 1988, 169)." Another requirement concerns process, in which presidents must "be generally conversant with the risks and impediments to effective decision making and strongly committed to avoiding them (1988, 171)." The sorry history of Iran-contra confirms that neither of these stipulations was met.
One result was a decline in public trust of the president's word. A composite American National Election Studies index of four measurements of trust saw a drop from 47 percent in 1986 down to 34 percent in 1988 (ANES, Trust in Government Index). A major restorative effort was launched in 1987 after the Tower Report (Abshire 2005). It ultimately met with substantial success, in part because of misbehavior by the Sandinista government, and because of an issue-attention shift toward the beneficent changes in the U.S. and Soviet relationship via Soviet leader Gorbachev. In addition, Reagan personally owned up to the adverse Tower Report in a widely televised acknowledgement that Iran-contra did in fact involve trading arms for hostages in Lebanon (March 4, 1987 - Address to the Nation on the Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy). But overall public trust in government still declined after the temporary recovery step it had reached by 1986 (Trust in Government). Historical evaluations also mark down the Reagan Administration for this scandal. Iran-contra remains a singular black mark on eight years of the Reagan presidency.
Reagan’s failure to oversee Iran-contra is not an isolated instance. Rather it illustrates a consistent trend of poor to nonexistent presidential oversight of his own house. The President’s travel schedule was governed for years by a Chief of Staff hamstrung by Nancy Reagan’s insistence upon following the detailed prescriptions of an astrologer on which days were or were not propitious for travel or affairs of state (Regan 1988, 68-77). Numerous ethical and/or criminal lapses occurred in several Cabinet posts, most notably the Housing and Urban Development offices with routine allotment of favored contracts to party and financial friends of the administration. The massive savings and loan bailout had its origins in the 1980s, with bipartisan responsibility by both Congress and presidency for allowing a raising of consumer investment protection and a lifting of all constraints upon how S and L operators could invest those funds. Problems symbolized by the Lincoln Savings and Loan executive Charles Keating and the ‘Keating Five’ came to represent a dismaying failure of performance by national institutions of governance. One of the upshots of that, together with chronic deficits which defied pronouncements that they would be wished away, was to erode public confidence in both their central governments and their president.
VII. Cold War and the Fall of Communism Top; Next Down
Reagan has been judged an historically fortunate man who presided in an historically fortunate period for the American superpower. His many ardent supporters argue that he above all presidents produced his own good fortune. To the extent both these points are so, they reside on the extraordinary events of 1985 to 1991. This was the historic era of Michael Gorbachev taking the helm in the Soviet Union, Reagan and Gorbachev negotiating several times in a climate of rapidly declining Cold War tensions, crumbling of the Soviet economy, and revelations of a severe legitimacy crisis of the Soviet-dominated eastern European governments of the "German Democratic Republic" (East Germany), in the Poland of Gdansk and shipyard workers' uprisings, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, even in Stalinist Romania. Young Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and others threw off the yoke of these regimes when given this opportunity by the lightening of Cold War tensions and cessation of Stalinist regimes. Ideologues argue endlessly about whether the primary credit goes to Reagan (as many American conservatives insist), to Gorbachev (as American political liberals often say), or somewhere else.
The American public has taken a more elemental view, as has the public in the directly affected nation-states of central Europe on the front lines of the forty-year-long Cold War. They affirm generous credit on the principals on both sides, Reagan and his successor George Bush in the American side, and Gorbachev on the Soviet side. There is little reason to believe it otherwise.
The same holds for apportioning credit within Cold War times among American chief executives. President Truman initiated the rebuilding of western Europe, President Kennedy symbolized the illegitimacy of the Berlin Wall, President Carter promoted the explicit consideration of human rights into international affairs, and President Reagan provided assistance to the Vatican and others who sought to undermine the grip of communist governments over their peoples. It is a broadly shared responsibility among them to further American foreign policy goal to have a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Europe. Ideological pre-judgments should not be permitted to arbitrarily divide chief responsibility according to who most closely fits one's own policy preferences. It is a bottom-line judgment that the Reagan foreign policy dealings with Gorbachev in 1985 through 1988 yielded an excellent harvest. (See The Cold War Museum - Links 80's at www.coldwar.org/articles/80s/links.php3 for numerous illustrations of 1980s Cold War policy, culminating with the Wall coming down in 1989.)
VIII. Conclusion: Reagan and FDR Top; Next Down
Ronald Reagan was neither a great president nor a failed one. He most certainly was an important one who is widely credited with a restorative influence on the executive office. The resemblances with Franklin Roosevelt exceed those with any other Reagan predecessor by far, notwithstanding that one stood as liberal leader and coalition founder in the 1930s, the other as conservative leader and coalition founder nearly two generations later.
Reagan never confronted grave national crises of dimensions faced twice by Franklin Roosevelt, but like FDR he restored a great deal of public confidence in the presidency and nation after its low ebb with Ford and Carter. He was inspirational with words and convictions about American destiny like FDR, but unlike him also was alarmingly lazy in seeing that things were done competently in administrative terms. As FDR once defined liberalism, Reagan became the leading voice of conservative policy aspirations in a period of worldwide upswing of capitalist and decentralization ideas among the democracies. He helped bring about the optimistic feeling in foreign affairs that the Cold War could end and the Soviet Union’s breakup could foster a period of lessened nuclear tensions. He spoke for American exceptionalism, the concept that a special destiny and greatness awaited the American people; but his prescription for destiny was to define big government as the core problem rather than a New Deal-styled root solution to chronic troubles. He broadened his political party to join traditional conservatives based on national economic and foreign policy, with emergent religious voices of reaction against cultural liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Like FDR’s, this coalition also required divisional lines and an identification of friends and foes, which Reagan ungraciously overstated by invoking Jimmy Carter as FDR had once used Hoover for foil. He was a pragmatic political man who practiced what Adlai Stevenson once mockingly called the “liberal hour,” shelling out government benefits to constituents on election eve in 1984; but FDR did the same thing with approval of the veterans’ bonus in 1936 despite an otherwise fiscally conservative budget (Tufte 1978, 38; Friedel 1990, 191-193). He carried himself with a graceful and infectious humor and personal good will, consciously modeling that demeanor upon FDR even before his presidency began (Cannon 1991, 108-110). He “exploited Roosevelt for conservative ends” (Leuchtenburg 1989, 210) but sincerely believed FDR was an American hero (ibid., 233-234). He harkened back in speeches and private memoirs to his own adult youth of the 1930s and 1940s, when FDR was the presidential colossus and the young Reagan had cast his first presidential vote for FDR and the Democrats at age 21 (Reagan 1990, 66-67, 134; Neustadt 1990, 272; Leuchtenburg 1989). He felt and relished the ceremonial duties of his office with evident good will and assurance, like FDR reinforcing the fact that the American presidency is still the focus of national government in the United States.
The final word here belongs to the eminent senior scholar of the modern American presidency, Richard Neustadt. He proclaimed that "if the modern Presidency can be said to begin with FDR, it is also the case that Reagan was the last Roosevelt Democrat we shall see as President. ... his Presidency restored the public image of the office to a fair (if perhaps rickety) approximation of its Rooseveltian mold: a place of popularity, influence, and initiative, a source of programmatic and symbolic leadership, both pacesetter and tonesetter, the nation’s voice to both the world and us, and--like or hate the policies--a presence many of us loved to see as Chief of State (Neustadt 1990, 269)."
Abshire, David M. 2005. Saving the Reagan Presidency: Trust Is the Coin of the Realm. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.
Arnold, R. Douglas. 1990. The Logic of Congressional Action. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Birnbaum, Jeffrey H. and Alan S. Murray. 1987. Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform. New York: Random House.
Brinkley, Douglas, ed. 2007. The Reagan Diaries. New York: Harper Collins.
Cannon, Lou. 1991. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Collier, Kenneth E. 1997. Between the Branches: The White House Office of Legislative Affairs. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Conlan, Timothy J., Margaret T. Wrightson, and David R. Beam. 1990. Taxing Choices: The Politics of Tax Reform. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Edwards, George C. III with Alec M. Gallup. 1990. Presidential Approval: A Sourcebook. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Farrell, John A. 2001. Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century. Boston: Little, Brown, Back Bay Books.
FitzGerald, Frances. 2000. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster.
Friedel, Frank. 1990. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. Boston: Little, Brown.
Hertsgaard, Mark. 1988. On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Hibbs, Douglas A. Jr. 1987. The American Political Economy: Macroeconomics and Electoral Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Jacobson, Gary C. 1985. Party Organization and Distribution of Campaign Resources: Republicans and Democrats in 1982. Political Science Quarterly © 1985 The Academy of Political Science. URL: www.jstor.org/view/00323195/di980409/98p0133j/0.
Jacobson, Gary C. 1987. The Politics of Congressional Elections, 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown.
________. 2001. The Politics of Congressional Elections, 5th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. 1988. Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kernell, Samuel. 1993. Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership, 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Kernell, Samuel and Samuel L. Popkin, eds. 1986. Chief of Staff: Twenty-five Years of Managing the Presidency. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kessel, John H. 1983. The Structures of the Carter White House. American Journal of Political Science 27 (1983): 431-463.
________. 1984. The Structures of the Reagan White House. American Journal of Political Science 28 (1984): 231-258.
Lady Thatcher Salutes President Reagan. February 23, 1994. URL: www.presidentreagan.info/speeches/thatcher.cfm.
Leuchtenburg, William. 1993. In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Light, Paul C. 1995. Thickening Government: Federal Hierarchy and the Diffusion of Accountability. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1996. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. : (add publisher)
Maranto, Robert. 1993. Still Clashing After All These Years: Ideological Conflict in the Reagan Executive. American Journal of Political Science 37:3 (August), 681-698.
Neustadt, Richard E. 1990. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: Free Press.
Niskanen, William A. 1993. Reaganomics, by William A. Niskanen The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics Library of Economics and Liberty. URL: www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Reaganomics.html.
Noonan, Peggy. 1990. What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. New York: Random House.
O'Neill, Thomas P. Jr. with William Novak. 1987. Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O'Neill. New York: Random House.
Pemberton, William E. 1998. Exit with Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.
Quirk, Paul J. 1988. Presidential Competence. In Michael Nelson, ed., The Presidency and the Political System, 2d ed., ch. 7, pp. 161-183. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Reagan, Ronald. 1990. Ronald Reagan: An American Life; The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Reeves, Richard. 2005. President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Regan, Donald T. 1988. For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Rohde, David W. 1991. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rudder, Catherine E. 2009. Transforming American Politics through Tax Policy. In Lawrence C. Dodd and Bruce I. Oppenheimer, eds., Congress Reconsidered, pp. 263-284. Washington D.C.: CQ Press.
Sawhill, Isabel V. and Charles F. Stone. 1984. The Economy: The Key to Success. In John L. Palmer and Isabel V. Sawhill, eds., The Reagan Record, Ch. 3, pp. 69-105. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press.
Shull, Steven A., ed. 1991. The Two Presidencies: A Quarter Century Assessment. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Skowronek, Stephen. 1997. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Cambridge: Belknap and Harvard University Press.
Stanley, Harold W. and Richard G. Niemi. 1992. Vital Statistics on American Politics, 3d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press.
Steuerle, C. Eugene. 2004. Contemporary U.S. Tax Policy. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press.
Thatcher, Margaret. 1993. Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years. New York: Harper Collins.
Tolchin, Martin. 1994. Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., a Democratic Power in the House for Decades, Dies at 81. New York Times, January 6. URL: www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/11/specials/oneill-obit.html.
Tufte, Edward R. 1978. Political Control of the Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Weatherford, M. Stephen and Lorraine M. McDonnell. 1990. Ideology and Economic Policy. In Larry Berman, ed., Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, ch. 7, pp. 122-155. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Weko, Thomas J. 1995. The Politicizing Presidency: The White House Personnel Office, 1948-1994. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
Wilentz, Sean. 2008. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York: HarperCollins.
 Hibbs concludes that "The macroeconomic history of the Carter administration is a textbook example of how not to run an economy to win reelection (1987, 191)." And "President Carter and the Democrats went before the electorate in 1980 with the worst of all possible situations--high inflation, increased unemployment, and falling real income and output (1987, 191)." Not only did Carter win only 40.7% of the national vote, Democrats also lost a net of 33 seats in the House and a remarkable 12-seat loss in the Senate. As a result, the Senate fell under control of Republicans for the next six years--the only period of more than two years' majority status by the GOP in either House from 1933 until the GOP congressional election breakthrough of 1994.
 The 1970-1979 average yearly unemployment rate was 6.3%, while the inflation rate was 6.6%. This was a disappointing performance to the American people, who grew accustomed to steady 3%-plus real economic growth throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It gave considerable justification to conservatives and libertarian economists' argument for a different national fiscal and monetary policy. A justification and defense of Reaganomics from one of its principal architects is Reaganomics, by William A. Niskanen The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics Library of Economics and Liberty.
 Hibbs concludes here that "In contrast to those of the Carter years, the time paths of unemployment and real income growth rates during Reagan's first term conform perfectly to the so-called political business cycle pattern (Hibbs 1987, 191)."
The idea of American exceptionalism originated with Tocqueville's Democracy
in America and has been expounded recently in Seymour Martin Lipset's
American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, published in 1996.
The commonplace understanding of it is that America has a special purpose and
destiny in the world associated with its advocacy of human freedom. Reagan
observed Franklin Roosevelt's "rendezvous with destiny" and the infectious
optimism associated with this assurance of ultimate success. He adapted
his own optimistic nature and demeanor in service of conservative opposition to
the Great Society--but not necessarily the New Deal (Pemberton 1998, 208).
Frances FitzGerald has set forth the thesis that Reagan's famous Star Wars speech of 1983 was predicated upon a special version of this faith, per Frances Fitzgerald on National Missile Defense and Fitzgerald Roundtable Transcript. But the linkage to the specific inclusion of the proposal in Reagan's March 23, 1983 speech is tenuous (Speeches of Ronald Reagan, under 3/23/83).
 The President had spoken forcefully against the Sandinista government over several years, including this May 9, 1984 Address to the Nation on United States Policy in Central America: "Central America is a region of great importance to the United States. And it is so close: San Salvador is closer to Houston, Texas, than Houston is to Washington, DC. Central America is America. It's at our doorstep, and it's become the stage for a bold attempt by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua to install communism by force throughout the hemisphere. ... if we do nothing, if we continue to provide too little help, our choice will be a Communist Central America with additional Communist military bases on the mainland of this hemisphere and Communist subversion spreading southward and northward. ... The Sandinistas, who rule Nicaragua, are Communists whose relationship and ties to Fidel Castro of Cuba go back a quarter of a century." That is a straight Cold War expression of New World containment policy combined indirectly with the 1823 proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine.
Copyright©2002-2010, Russell D. Renka
Monday, April 19, 2010 10:50:52 AM