Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reagan/Obama

I have a column up over at TAP arguing that it's a mistake for Barack Obama to aspire to being a "liberal Reagan" -- because, well, because politics doesn't work like that. And with some advise on what Obama should do going forward. I think it's a good one, so maybe you will too.

Meanwhile, since I wrote it the "liberal Reagan" pieces keep on coming -- two smart observers, E.J. Dionne and Greg Sargent, each pick up the theme. I'll note a couple of things that go a bit beyond the TAP piece in response.

Dionne says that "Like Reagan, Obama hopes to usher in a long-term electoral realignment." It's very, very hard to see a Reagan realignment. Republicans won the presidency in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988; I can't really see 1980 as anything special in that sequence. Or, to put it another way, after Reagan Republicans have won the national presidential vote only in 1988 and 2004. Reagan did come into office with basically a conservative coalition majority in the House, the first one in a while...but it disappeared rapidly in 1982, and didn't reappear until 1994, which was also when Republicans recaptured the Senate after loosing it in 1986. To me, the Congressional story seems more like continuity through 1994, especially on the House side. To put it yet another way: I'm aware of no election study -- or anything else, for that matter -- that gets any explanatory power by using 1980 to help explain things. That is, if you're studying the 1968 election and the 1988 election, you toss in the same things -- economic fundamentals, presidential approval, perhaps candidate factors -- and the results work fine. You don't need to add "oh, and this one was after Reagan" to the 1988 analysis. It won't help.

(I am aware of one similar variable that's been used -- David Mayhew, in his book about divided government, included a variable for a liberal era which, he found, predicted more significant legislation. However, his "activist mood" begins in 1961 and ends in 1976; it's over four years before Reagan wins the White House. Hey, political scientists: if there's anything I'm missing, please let me know).

There has been, to be sure, one development that could be called long-term electoral realignment: the conversion of the bulk of Anglo southerners from conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans. But if anything, Reagan stalled that conversion; at the congressional level, it wound up taking place in one big and fairly permanent surge in 1994. Not in 1980. At the presidential level, meanwhile, it was an ongoing process from the 1940s forward. Reagan didn't delay it as far as I can tell, but he didn't accelerate it, either.

In my view, there's just very little evidence for claiming, as Greg does, that Reagan's presidency was a "turning point in American history" (indeed, Greg says that Reagan's Inaugural speech was the turning point, which is an even harder sell).

There's more of this in the TAP piece, but also, as I said, more on what Obama should actually do rather than trying to be a liberal Reagan (or, in Greg's version, an anti-Reagan).

18 comments:

  1. The picture TAP uses for you is of Matt Bai. I think they pulled it from one of your TNR guest posts on Bai.

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    1. Now that's some poetic injustice!

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  2. I think it's helpful to think about more specific questions.

    How much of the Reagan Legacy can we attribute to Reagan and Bush Sr.'s appointments to the Supreme Court?

    How much does Reagan have to do with the mainstreaming and nationalization of social conservative discourse, so that even Republican candidates for small town mayors, whose policy bailiwick may have nothing to do with social issues, will campaign on them?

    How much does Reagan have to do with the shift from direct provision of government services to reliance on private contractors?

    How much did Reagan shift us to a high-deficit, low-tax equilibrium?

    How much did Reagan shift the Overton window for state and local policy?

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    1. Exactly, Reagan is a philosophical touchstone.

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    2. But would we have seen the same changes, shifts, etc even if Reagan hadn't been President? I think so. Politicians respond to political realities and trends more often than create or control them.

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    3. Here's a thought experiment. Let's say Dole or H.W. Bush had gotten the nomination in 1980. Assuming they beat Carter (which is highly likely considering the state of the economy and Iran) would the US be more "liberal" today? If so how? I highly doubt there would big major differences in terms of American politics as a whole even if there were difference in marginal tax rates or the rhetoric conservatives use in other offices.

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    4. I have another thought experiment. What if Carter had lost the 1976 election? What if Ford had served for four more years--or, better yet, Reagan had beaten Ford in the primaries and become president in '77? I don't know about you, but I think that if either of those things had happened, it is highly likely that a Democrat would have been elected in 1980. Despite all the conservative mythology that Carter destroyed the economy and Reagan fixed it, the reality is that what brought down Carter's presidency and made Reagan's succeed owed itself largely to circumstances beyond either man's control (and I say that as someone who, like JB, regards Carter as a poor president). Any incumbent in 1980 was likely doomed, regardless of the outcome of the Iran Hostage Crisis, and anyone elected president in 1980, especially one from a different party than his immediate predecessor, was probably bound to be reelected.

      So what would the political legacy of the '80s be like if (as I consider quite plausible) it would have been dominated by Democratic administrations rather than Republican ones?

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  3. I think that you're right about Reagan. I'm curious though: do you completely reject Skowronek's account of political time? Even though it is hard to make concrete -- it does seem like there is something to the idea that a Reagan regime displaced a vulnerable New Deal/liberal regime.

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    1. I'm not a big fan of it, no. I don't think it's useless in that I think the importance of partisan context is important, but I'm not convinced by the account of regularities over time.

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  4. I do have a sense that on some broad cultural level conservatives had the momentum over the last few decades. It didn't start in 1980 - it could be traced to Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968 - but the tide was running full force by 1980. (In California it was running strong by 1978, with the tax revolt and Prop 13.)

    Maybe it didn't directly shape the electoral landscape, but surely it affected the political dynamics, so you had Bill Clinton saying 'the era of big government is over.'

    And I do feel that the tide is showing signs of changing. Conservatives seem more on the defensive than I can remember in my adult lifetime, even if their first impulse is to circle the wagons.

    Yes, all of this is a bit vague, and certainly elusive to quantify, but it still seems significant.

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  5. There is one point here that should be noted, though, which is distinctive about Reagan: conservatives and Republicans -will not shut up about him-. I mean, yes, there were all those other victories, but there is no Richard Nixon PR factory, nor a Gerald Ford factory, nor a George HW Bush machine. Nor is there a Newt Gingrich train, even though as noted any "congressional realignment" had to wait until the mid-1990s.

    But Reagan remains everywhere, his discourse is seeped into contemporary GOP conservativism; "What Would Reagan Do?" is a real question commentators constantly bring up.

    So I guess another way of framing this is whether all this endless Reagan-chatter is sound and fury, signifying little, or whether it can be said that Reagan has become this much larger than life figure in his death has some independent significance / power, in terms of what a "realignment" means. My own hunch is that it does; people and movements do need these totemic symbols. Whether Reagan could be elected by Republicans in the 2000s is arguably irrelevant; with his positions FDR certainly could not have won the Democratic nomination by the 1960s.

    So I think at the end of the day as another commentator notes, Skowronek -is- on to something here, and there's more to this "Reagan realignment" issue than some political scientists note. But agreed it's hard as heck to quantify just what "it" is, too. So this is a fearless blog post.

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    1. A helpful book is Will Bunch's Tear Down This Myth, which discusses how the Reagan Cult developed in the years after he left the White House and contrasts the myth with the reality. Bunch makes the point that the conservative worship of Reagan is really unique in contemporary politics, even though mythologization of past presidents is perfectly normal. There are some superficial parallels with the treatment of JFK (who, like Reagan, is remembered far more for his general image than for anything he did while in office), but he isn't invoked as a totem on the left; no Democrat says "What would JFK do?"

      Since the elevation of St. Ronnie is unique, it's hard to pinpoint what effects it has had, subtle or otherwise, on the political scene. Like you, I strongly suspect it does have an effect. It's part of what has helped keep the fragile conservative coalition together in the post-Cold War era. Every conservative today, no matter what faction they hail from, claims to be an heir to Reagan's legacy. It's one of the most striking points of unity on the right, where actual unity on policy is rare. Without Reagan, they wouldn't have as powerful a symbol to represent the essential True Conservatism from which today's politicians have strayed.

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  6. Many of your points in the TAP piece are well taken, but I think you have an under-examined notion of "good policy," which you refer to at multiple points, as if "good policy" is self-evident or not always an assessment made in relation to an ideological worldview. You say Obama should just put his head down an make "good policy," but that could be "good policy" according to centrist-moderate Democratic standards or mainstream-liberal Democratic standards, etc. "Good policy" means little, especially since you say Obama might very well have the ability to define/shape his party going forward and that will mean taking sides in internal Democratic debates about what should be considered desirable, "good" policy positions and compromises.

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    1. I pretty much mean what Neustadt says about it...he calls it "viable" public policy, and he's not all that clear, either. The basic idea is that it "works" more or less...which is going to be judged subjectively, I suppose, but sometimes the calls seem pretty easy (Medicare yes, the Iraq War no).

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  7. The only political event in recent decades that triggered a true realignment, as far as I can tell, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That really scrambled existing coalitions in a way that would be hard to predict from their initial structure. After that, I sort of feel like everybody is doing basically predictable things -- join the party of big money and White Christian ethnocentrism, or join the party of people threatened by big money and White Christian ethnocentrism.

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    1. Yes, and if we're thinking in those terms, then one would also have to highlight the Immigration Acts of 1965, 1986, and 1990, as well as NAFTA, for driving trends in migration.

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    2. Yeah, these are good points. I don't know if the CRA/VRA were exactly realigning (because I'm not sure it's a useful concept), but they certainly were important, affected lots of things in complex ways over time, etc. And very much the 1965 immigration law as well. I don't know enough to say whether that's true of the later immigration laws and NAFTA.

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  8. I always considered Nixon to be the crack of the bat and Reagan essentially just follow-through. So I associate Obama as "aspiring" to be the liberal Nixon.

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