Was Ronald Reagan America’s Pinkerton? USC Bedrosian discussion of Reagen’s White House

Our policy wonks read Peggy Noonan’s What I Saw At the Revolution , and we sat down to discuss it a few weeks ago. On the resulting podcast are USC Bedrosian faculty, staff, and students: Raphael Bostic, Donnajean Ward, Matt Young, and me.

I listened to our discussion the other day and came to two conclusions: 1) I get very boisterous discussing books and 2) I have always rather thought of Reagen a lot like the Pinkerton character in Madame Butterfly. Pinkerton is not, per se, a bad man. He is very charming, and he is courtly in his affections for Butterfly. But he ruins her anyway because he’s not a careful man, nor is he a thoughtful man. Even at the end, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that coming back to Butterfly, new wife in hand, to take her boy away will take everything Butterfly loves and give her no reason to live. This isn’t a merely cross-cultural blindness on Pinkerton’s part. At some point, all that stops being the winsome charm of a simple, devil-may-care fellow and starts being an unforgivable obtuseness in his character about the way the world works and what other people need.

And that’s a little how I feel about the Reagan legacy. Conservatives revere him as this marvelous leader who emerged in the aftermath of the disastrous 1960s to ‘make America great again.’ If Trump’s slogan sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a constant drumbeat for conservatives. Conservatives are in thrall to imagined past that was simple, clear, and linear, and so much better than today, and we could have that again, if only we did things differently, and progressives are in thrall to an imagined future where things could be so much better than today, if only we do these other things differently.

Nonetheless, when I think of Reagan I think of a truly charismatic leader that, by “simplifying” the issues, led us to two legacies just as socially and economically disastrous as anything the 1960s might have wrought:

1) Americans shouldn’t have to pay taxes at the same time they should engage in lots of foreign policy brinkmanship and intervention; and

2) A dollar spent on a social investment in an American is a hand-out to a unproductive person, and, thus, that is a dollar wasted. Rather, if we all just pull together and smile enough, things like need will go away with jes’ a l’il o’ that American gumption and go-gettiness.

Those two led major influences that Reagan legitimized, even if he didn’t invent them, have led the US into crippling levels of unproductive spending and unwillingness to have any serious discussion about social investments at all.

The first impression has led us into one, very expensive foreign entanglement after another, which leads to the US taking on what have turned out to be unproductive spending in blood and treasure. The second influence led to decades where social policy discussions were either one-sidedly stupid or nonexistent, which led to conditions where the possibilities for health care expansion allowed older Americans and the health sector to benefit, while younger Americans got less and less investment, and while I certainly do not want elderly people to be impoverished or to suffer ill health, dollars spent at the end of life are not at all the same economic investment as those made in young people.

And we can’t discuss either of these issues without people running around like their fannies are fire and yelling “SOCIALISM SOCIALISM SOCIALISM FACISM ERMERGERD FACISM YOU ARE JUST LIKE NAZI GERMANS.”

Bostic, in leading the discussion, seemed to want to discuss management; I wanted to discuss policy, and we seesaw the discussion back and forth in the discussion. I agree entirely that Reagan was a wonderful leader who did a great job at many things as president. But I also abhor the policy influences of that leadership. Trump has said, again and again, that people do not care about policy. I clearly do. Which leads me to some questions:

1. Do people vote for individuals trusting that their character is fine, and if that character is in general what they want it to be (in Reagen’s case, seemingly friendly, fatherly, determined, decisive, old-fashioned, decent) is that enough to say that a leader did his job by being those things? Was it enough for Reagan to make people feel hopeful again and to make them love America? That itself can’t have been easy.

2. Or do people–should people–vote for parties based on platforms, even though few people seem to know what platforms are and what they are for, and even though presidential leadership may lead far from platforms?

3. Or should people realize that the individual leaders they see standing on the stage come with a whole host of people. The people running for office aren’t just individuals, they are organizations. In Reagan’s case, that nice old man came equipped a horde of Chicago School Friedman’s acolytes whose dogma was “taxes baaaaaaaaad, markets goooooood” and hawks who believed themselves above democratic scrutiny in the name of democratic security, willing to experiment with the Laffer idea and other trickle-down theories without ever–ever–revisiting their policy experiments for potential failures once we had empirical results on the tax cuts? Is he responsible for them because he gave them “grandpa” cover? I rather think so.

For more of my discussion of the problems with doubling down on Laffer

Goodbye Margaret Thatcher

I doubt I agreed with a single one of her policy positions–if I did, I never encountered it–but I admired her madly anyway. She was an early political role model to me, at a time when American girls were presented with precious few roles for women in politics besides “wife” whose job was to dispense adoring looks–or oddballs who, wonderful as though they were, struck one more like maiden aunts than mothers. Thatcher established (for me) that one could run a country and still give out her own adoring looks for her beloved husband, Denis, and that he seemed to return in equal adoration.

Yahoo has a nice slideshow.

What I learned from Robert Caro

Robert Caro came to give the Dennis and Brooks Holt Distinguished Lecture last night. That sponsored lecture allows USC to attract distinguished thinkers on politics and the media.

Caro was so charming in every way–an amazing story-teller, with a lovely New York boy accent–and I loved so much of what he said it’s hard to distill.

For one thing, I love how Caro manages to humanize Lyndon Johnson without romanticizing him. Caro has been able to demonstrate why LBJ is so important to the left–and how effective a political genius he was in accomplishing things for people–like rural Texans–that are normally not the beneficiaries of public policy. And just how ruthless he was in doing so.

The second thing I took away was his incredible patience. It doesn’t seem to bother him that, in his 80s now, he may or may not get to the end of his LBJ project before it’s time for him to exit. And he does seem to have another project in mind–but he refused to answer that question when asked because he’s superstitious. I love this–I really don’t like to discuss nascent work, either, which many people rather treat like a weakness. Well, if Robert Caro can do it, I can, too. I don’t like to talk away ideas before I write them.

In addition to his interest in new projects, he admitted last night that he reads Trollope, which made me squeal with delight. I love Trollope, but whenever I am reading these old, long meandering 19th century novels, there is a nagging person inside my head telling me that I am wasting my time, that nothing these novelists have to say matters to the world, and that, at middle-age, I only have so much reading time left. If a guy in his 80s can spend his free time reading Trollope, and his working time working for 8 years on a biography of roughly 3 months of a man’s life, then I can let time go lightly, too.

Perhaps Ann Coulter should try for a guest slot on the “Love Boat” or “Murder, She Wrote” next

That’s usually what washed-up pseudo-celebs do when they become unhappy with their (usually entirely deserved) relegation to oblivion.

It’s really hard to even write this post because there really is nothing about Ann Coulter that doesn’t disgust me–I like my conservative commentary with actual content in it, which is why I am a regular reader of material from Cato and NR.

She’s just a fame monger, and I’m not sure why anybody pays attention to her except that she’s blonde and says mean things, routinely, like somehow being snotty equals being hard-hitting and being common equals being populist. It was boring and predictable 10 years ago when Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore patented it.

Here is a response from Tim Shriver to Coulter’s mean-ass, petty Twitter: I highly approve of Romney’s decision to be kind and gentle to the retard. (during the debate)

Here is the money quote from Shriver:

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

And here I was just wondering if Coulter meant “retard” as “person who actually uses reason in debate instead of playground invective.”

Amateur Hour: Stupid versus smart image politics, and is it really that hard to find dirty dishes to wash?

OOoooo yes it’s a new liberal media attack on poor dear TEA party hero Paul Ryan: this story in the WashPo notes that he put his family through a fake photo op at a soup kitchen for reasons that really make little sense to anybody. I see one of his kids writing a Bristol Palin type memoir soonish.

Image politics bites back: who would have thought that, apparently, pictures of you washing clean pans can make you look like a fool when people actually report on what you did. You mean pictures aren’t enough? I guess not.

The comments on the story are, as always, dumb: Ooooo doncha ya know, that Ohbummer does the same thing with hugging pizza guys.

Um, no, Obama does not do the same thing. His people are really competent at controlling images. That’s the difference. He doesn’t have to photoshop the hug. Or hire an actor to play a pizza guy to hug or a janitor to fist bump. If something cute or human or inspiring is staged, as they undoubtedly are, they take a picture and circulate it widely. It’s called image politics, and it’s as old as politicians kissing babies.

But they don’t kiss dolls and then try to tell people that it was a real baby with typhus and aren’t they brave for kissing it? Gah! HOW DO YOU MESS UP A PHOTO OP AT A SOUP KITCHEN? Amateur hour.

The millions and scads that Romney has in money should be getting him better staffer than this. Everybody who is a pro in politics knows you don’t ask a volunteer if a candidate can come in. You do actually ask somebody on payroll with a title that has “director” in it, for precisely the reasons outlined here in the WashPo follow up with the charity’s president: many public charities steer clear of endorsing candidates because they know they will lose donations if they appear to be throwing in behind a particular candidate.

We all know this. How can Ryan’s people not know this? How in God’s name could anybody have thought that nobody would talk about a candidate playing with clean dishes for the cameras?

They would have been FINE just talking with volunteers and getting their pictures taken shaking hands and thanking real volunteers. FINE. But no.