Three Things I Learned From Ronald Reagan

At least on the Democratic side, most of the auto-erotic punditry seems to be focused on philosophies of governing. Mine in a nutshell is draw real, meaningful distinctions between the parties and try to take back the Congress in 2018 and 2020.

The non-nutshell version is that Ronald Reagan did accomplish three things during his term: he radically shifted the acceptable range and terms of the political debate, and he appointed people (many of whom were batshit insane) to federal bureaucracies*. This helped continue to invigorate a conservative power base (lobbying groups and the fundamentalist right). He was far less successful on the legislative front than conservatives would have liked, as he, like Obama, spent most of his presidency with a Congress from the opposition party.

Democrats need to learn from this, as Jedidiah Purdy explains (boldface mine):

Krugman’s mistake is very basic. He’s wrong about the Sanders campaign’s theory of change. It isn’t that a high-minded leader can draw out our best selves and translate those into more humane and egalitarian lawmaking. It is that a campaign for a more equal and secure economy and a stronger democracy can build power, in networks of activists and alliances across constituencies. The movement that the campaign helps to create can develop and give voice to a program that the same people will keep working for, in and out of election cycles. In other words, this is a campaign about political ideas and programs that happens to have a person named Bernie at its head, not a campaign that mistakes its candidate for a prophet or a wizard….

But what made it possible for him to pass sweeping changes in economic regulation and social support, changes so radical that his enemies accused of socialism, of being un-American, of destroying the country and becoming an American Mussolini? The answer is in two parts: ideas and power. His administration stood at the confluence of two great movements. The first was the labor unions, which had been building power, often in bloody and terrible struggles, since the late nineteenth century. The second was made up of the Progressives, generations of reformers who worked in state, cities, and universities — and occasionally in national government – to achieve economic security and update political democracy in an industrial economy that had transformed the country in the decades after the Civil War. Ideas, programs, and power swirled around Roosevelt, gave his agenda shape, and pressed it forward.

To be clear, this is not ‘Green Lanternism.’ But to ignore the role the bully pulpit can play over the long-term is quite foolish. The other thing a president can do quite easily is alter the federal bureaucracy, something Sen. Elizabeth Warren alluded to recently (boldface mine):

…Warren insists that the bigger problem is a failure to “use the tools Congress has already provided to impose meaningful accountability on corporate offenders.” She even argues that bank regulators had the tools they needed to stop the 2008 financial crisis, but chose not to.

Despite multiple promises by President Obama’s Department of Justice to stiffen enforcement of corporate misconduct, including a 2015 memo creating new guidelines for prosecutions of individuals, almost all major instances lead to toothless settlements, she writes. “Accountability has been shockingly weak.”

Warren also published an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday discussing her report. “Enforcement isn’t about big government or small government,” she writes there. “It’s about whether government works and who it works for.”

While Warren is specifically referring to banking malfeasance, there’s a more general principle: the leadership of federal bureaucracies does matter. And it’s not just who is appointed to lead them, but also who those appointees install as civil service employees in the bureaucracy. Right now, the federal government is still riddled with Bush era appointees, who, on a day to day basis, de facto enact policy–and, as Warren’s frustration indicates, many of the Obama appointees aren’t much better (for example, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has done nothing constructive since 1996; there’s a reason for that). These appointees, if the gaze of the White House is directly on them, can’t freelance, but the presidency has a limited attention span.

Ask yourself this: do we really need more New Democrat/Bob Rubin/neo-liberal/Center for American Progress apparatchiks in the bureaucracy. Yes, they’re preferable to whomever Republicans would install. But we could do better.

It almost make you think some of the Democratic elites who don’t like Sanders don’t want to change things…

*He also appointed lots of far-right judges but that has less to do with actual legislating and enacting of laws–though still critical.

This entry was posted in Democrats. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Three Things I Learned From Ronald Reagan

  1. Just wish you all would understand our US Constitution and that our Founding Fathers created a REPUBLIC – NOT a Democracy. As Benjamin Franklin responded to a question asked by a lady on ‘What kind of government do we or will we have sir?’ Benjamin Franklin responded ‘A Republic Ma’m, if we can keep it.’
    Well, obviously, keeping it has been a lot harder than people thought as it now is transforming into Socialism, Facism, and heading towards Communism, BIG government, little people, people dictated to by the Government vs the We The People telling the Government what we want since we pay their salaries from our Tax dollars.

Comments are closed.