Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy

The following was written in 2004, during the George W. Bush administration. 

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy
One factor that has led to the ongoing dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is the lack of a robust critique of the Reagan presidency. If conservatives fault him at all, they will likely mention only the shadow of high expectations he cast upon his successors.

But I would argue the opposite. It is the shadow of low expectations that haunts us in the long wake of the Reagan era, and the more a nation mythologizes a past president, the less chance of escaping the dark side of his legacy.

The strengths and charms of Ronald Reagan have been well celebrated, and deference was paid through the long years of his tragic illness. But for the good of the nation, it is time to strip the Reagan legacy of its protective amber of sentimentality and give it the same scrutiny afforded all other former presidents. Here are the outlines of such a critique:

President Reagan is widely viewed as a man of his word who consistently cut taxes and reduced the size of government. In fact, in studies that tracked whether presidents followed through on campaign promises, Reagan scored below all four of the most recent Democratic presidents.

After his initial tax cuts in 1981, he raised various taxes in every year that followed. He reduced domestic spending but increased spending elsewhere. To the government he inherited, he added $1.9 trillion in spending over eight years.

Ronald Reagan lifted a nation's spirit with his contagious optimism, yet he also introduced the seeds of a deep pessimism that haunts Republicans and the nation today. His oft-quoted words: "Government is not the solution; government is the problem," have been mistakenly used to legitimize a rigid, self-fulfilling notion that government cannot play an important role in solving problems. As demonstrated by 21st-century Republican rule, anti-government thinking has led not to smaller government but instead to incompetence, deepening debt and paralysis in the face of mounting problems.

One of Reagan's more celebrated quotes is: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." But this once-stirring call to party solidarity has had tragic consequences for the nation, as a Republican-controlled Congress failed to exercise oversight over itself and the Bush administration. The result is a Republican Party disciplined enough to acquire and solidify power but incapable of ethical and competent governance. George Washington's warnings about "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," voiced in his Farewell Address, speak to our time.

Reagan severed conservatives from a tradition of fiscal responsibility. Again in stark contrast to George Washington's warnings, a new policy of expanding government debt even in times of relative peace and prosperity began in the 1980s. Cutting government significantly and wisely requires deep knowledge, hard work, tough choices and a willingness to risk one's popularity. Reagan simply wasn't up to the task. According to biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan refused to at tack entitlements even when he had the opportunity to do so.

According to the U.S. General Accountability Office, our nation's debt and unfunded obligations stand at $53 trillion. Reagan's legacy of pain-avoidance, of promoting tax-rate cuts without the corresponding pain of spending cuts, has made this crisis impossible to discuss.

The Reagan administration's comparatively small-time escapades in Nicaragua and Grenada revealed a nation highly vulnerable to the sort of misleading sales job that preceded the current president's invasion of Iraq.

The Reagan model of a president often disengaged, with modest work ethic and with little curiosity about large sectors of reality, made similar weaknesses in George W. Bush's makeup seem less worrisome to voters.

Reagan allowed ideology to override scientific findings on evolution, AIDS and Star Wars, for instance. This blinders mentality continues to hamper governmental response to looming crises, most tragically in the case of climate change.

Ronald Reagan was most effective when he strayed from his own orthodoxy -- when he held talks with the "Evil Empire's" Mikhail Gorbachev, when he quietly withdrew troops from Lebanon, and when he increased taxes to keep Social Security solvent.

But his ideological descendants have inherited none of this pragmatism, and instead have turned his fighting words into rigid policy, expanding his darker policies while exploiting the blind spots in critical thinking that his winning personality cultivated in the public mind. Now, as problems languish and deepen, as climate change, health-care costs and massive debt cry out for a strong, informed governmental response, lingering affection for a president must not obscure the flaws in his personality and policies.

For the good of the nation and the Republican Party, it's time to drop the sentimentality and seek a better model for future leaders.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Choosing Leaders: Part 1

Guts, Blinking and the Work Ethic

George W. Bush, it is said, likes to trust in his gut feeling. Sarah Palin believes the test of a good leader is if he or she blinks when faced with a tough challenge. Anyone who seeks to lead the free world has got to harbor a big dose of chutzpah, but it's now abundantly clear that not all guts are created equal. Given the nation's vulnerability to poor leadership, it's time to expand the definition of guts beyond raw courage.

In evaluating candidates, ask if they exhibit solidity and courage, but also ask if their guts have an appetite for knowledge and wisdom, if they have digested history, will stomach dissent from their advisors, and extract the best from diverse viewpoints. When faced with a tough challenge, like developing a serviceable familiarity with policy, history, economics and science, have they stepped up to the plate or taken a pass?

In the 1980's, much was made of abuses of government welfare programs, in which people would work the system so they could live high off government handouts without doing any work. The question now is whether we should expect our leaders to have a work ethic--to study up and burn the midnight oil--or simply reward them with power and government salaries based on their folksy demeanors.

Low-Flow Toilets and the Blessings of Smart Regulation

Toilets don't normally come up in conversation. The last time they were in the news was back in 1997, when the federal government passed a law requiring that all new toilets use a maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The new requirement generated loud complaints on editorial pages about government overreaching, and the slew of poorly functioning toilets that ensued gave comedians some good punch lines. In fact, a little research at the time (see below) showed that government was being falsely maligned, and that a few unsung manufacturers responded to the regulatory challenge by designing effective toilets.

In searching for a replacement for the old, inefficient 4 gallon toilets in my house (3 gallons if one puts bricks or weighted bottles in the tank), it turns out that manufacturers have figured out how to use even less water than the government standard. Toto has come out with a 1.28 gallon toilet, and I've been told by a local retailer that all manufacturers will be using less than 1.6 gallons in the future. We bought a 1.28 gallon model, which works far better than any of the old 4 gallon types.

Examples of how limits, rather than unfettered freedom, spur invention can be found in many fields. The great classical composer, Igor Stravinsky would say that in constraint there can be freedom. Boundaries can help channel invention. The boundaries of a tennis court have brought tennis to a higher level than it would have achieved without them. President Kennedy's call for a man to land on the moon by the end of the 60s essentially framed a decade, creating a boundary within which the desired result should be and was achieved. Regulation, like goal setting, can be seen as either a burden or an inspiration.

Not all regulation is so constructive, but in the case of the lowly toilet, manufacturers responded by making a better product, and even going beyond what the government required. If you haven't had your quota of puns today, below is a letter I wrote to the Raleigh News and Observer back in 1997, telling how the need for catharsis can make the news media a channel for something other than truth:

Truth Down the Drain (from a 1997 letter to the editor)

Both Dave Barry's July 20 humor column and your April 5 editorial "Flunking the flush test" presented an appealing story line to feed our disgust with big government. The subject of these cathartic diatribes was, alas, low-flow toilets. By limiting the amount of water per flush to a measly 1.6 gallons, Washington bureaucrats have imposed on us, the hapless masses, a new generation of dysfunctional toilets.

Regulation run amok, it would seem. The only problem is that the distance between the story line and reality is, well, commodious.

For one thing, the regulations didn't come down to us from the feds, but instead originated in various water-poor states. And it wasn't overzealous environmentalists who led the push for a uniform national standard, but plumbing manufacturers frustrated by each state setting its own standards.

Nor are all 1.6 gallon toilets dysfunctional. Some manufacturers dumped poorly designed commodes on the market--no doubt secure in the fact that word-of-mouth on a subject like this would be next to nil. Contractors contributed to the snafu by installing the cheapest toilets they could find, regardless of quality.

Cast in this light, the federal government appears to be the only entity that has acted responsibly. That is, other than the unsung manufacturers who went to the trouble of designing dependable 1.6 gallon toilets, and now find their products unfairly maligned.

Whether it be a commode or the latest tirade against government, best not to buy it before checking the facts.