Monday, January 31, 2011

If I Can't Change Your Mind

Great post this morning from Brendan Nyhan debunking the idea that Ronald Reagan caused a public opinion shift towards conservative ideas. Never happened. One can make the case that Jimmy Carter caused a shift to the right in public opinion, but the Reagan years were associated with a shift in the other direction.

On top of that, note Andrew Sprung's reminder that Ronald Reagan, in his real-life presidency, wasn't all that conservative after his first year. Sprung concentrates on domestic policy, but Reagan's foreign policy was at least as offensive to true conservatives Reagan's second term was a succession of summits and arms control. Yes, he's often quoted about the need for verification on arms control treaties, but the true conservative position (then and now) don't really believe that verification is possible; arms control invariably is about American limits that the other side will find a way to evade. That wasn't Reagan's position, at least not after he met Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nyhan concludes with what he sees as Reagan's true lessons to Barack Obama: "(1) beat a weak incumbent in what is perceived to be a "mandate" election and (2) hope economic growth rebounds in the two years before your re-election." Well, I can't argue a lot with that. But I can't leave Reagan without adding one more important lesson from Reagan: stay engaged, and make sure your White House is in good working order. Reagan's careless and disastrous acquiescence in the decision to make Donald Regan his chief of staff in 1985 is certainly not something that Obama would want to emulate. Indeed, one of the lessons from Reagan's presidency is that when it comes to the key position of White House chief of staff, it's a lot more important to get someone who knows what he or she is doing than to please an ideological base -- neither James Baker (1981-1985) nor Howard Baker (1987-1988) had many fans among conservatives back then, but all that was forgotten once the administration ran fairly smoothly.


  1. Reagan did not cause an ideological shift; however, his victory signified the ascendancy of conservatism in American politics. Preceding the 1980 election, it had been 25 years since the GOP composed a majority of either chamber. And in the intervening thirty years from 1980-2010, the GOP has experienced sustained success in Congressional elections that it had not since the 1920s.

  2. AJR,

    It's a bit trickier than that. The GOP hadn't had a majority in Congress since 1955, but the conservative coalition had frequent majorities in the 1950s through 1970s. And of course there was a GOP presidency just four years earlier.

  3. Anyone who asserts that Reagan's administration was conservative needs to explain its agricultural policy. Can you imagine any other context in which conservatives would agree to government controlling production, fixing prices and sustaining dependency via government payouts? I know Reagan didn't inherit the disaster that is American agricultural policy but the 1981 Farm Bill (and the Bush administration's 2002 Farm Bill) just made the situation way worse.

  4. I've seen references to an Irving Kristol piece in WSJ called "The Reagan Revolution That Never Was," but I've never read it and can't find a way to access it. Apparently, it was a common view among conservatives at the time.


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